More than two thirds of the highly expressed ribosomal protein (RP) genes in Saccharomyces cerevisiae contain introns, which is in sharp contrast to the genome-wide five percent intron-containing genes. It is well established that introns carry regulatory sequences and that the transcription of RP genes is extensively and coordinately regulated. Here we test the hypotheses that introns are innately associated with heavily transcribed genes and that introns of RP genes contribute regulatory TF binding sequences. Moreover, we investigate whether promoter features are significantly different between intron-containing and intronless RP genes.
We find that directly measured transcription rates tend to be lower for intron-containing compared to intronless RP genes. We do not observe any specifically enriched sequence motifs in the introns of RP genes other than those of the branch point and the two splice sites. Comparing the promoters of intron-containing and intronless RP genes, we detect differences in number and position of Rap1-binding and IFHL motifs. Moreover, the analysis of the length distribution and the folding free energies suggest that, at least in a sub-population of RP genes, the 5' untranslated sequences are optimized for regulatory function.
Our results argue against the direct involvement of introns in the regulation of transcription of highly expressed genes. Moreover, systematic differences in motif distributions suggest that RP transcription factors may act differently on intron-containing and intronless gene promoters. Thus, our findings contribute to the decoding of the RP promoter architecture and may fuel the discussion on the evolution of introns.