The CRISPR/Cas9 system enables genome editing and somatic cell genetic screens in mammalian cells. We performed genome-scale loss-of-function screens in 33 cancer cell lines to identify genes essential for proliferation/survival and found a strong correlation between increased gene copy number and decreased cell viability after genome editing. Within regions of copy-number gain, CRISPR/Cas9 targeting of both expressed and unexpressed genes, as well as intergenic loci, led to significantly decreased cell proliferation through induction of a G2 cell-cycle arrest. By examining single-guide RNAs that map to multiple genomic sites, we found that this cell response to CRISPR/Cas9 editing correlated strongly with the number of target loci. These observations indicate that genome targeting by CRISPR/Cas9 elicits a gene-independent antiproliferative cell response. This effect has important practical implications for the interpretation of CRISPR/Cas9 screening data and confounds the use of this technology for the identification of essential genes in amplified regions.
SIGNIFICANCE: We found that the number of CRISPR/Cas9-induced DNA breaks dictates a gene-independent antiproliferative response in cells. These observations have practical implications for using CRISPR/Cas9 to interrogate cancer gene function and illustrate that cancer cells are highly sensitive to site-specific DNA damage, which may provide a path to novel therapeutic strategies.