Inclusion or exclusion of single codons at the splice acceptor site of mammalian genes is regulated in a tissue-specific manner, is strongly conserved, and is associated with local accelerated protein evolution.
Thousands of human genes contain introns ending in NAGNAG (N any nucleotide), where both NAGs can function as 3′ splice sites, yielding isoforms that differ by inclusion/exclusion of three bases. However, few models exist for how such splicing might be regulated, and some studies have concluded that NAGNAG splicing is purely stochastic and nonfunctional. Here, we used deep RNA-Seq data from 16 human and eight mouse tissues to analyze the regulation and evolution of NAGNAG splicing. Using both biological and technical replicates to estimate false discovery rates, we estimate that at least 25% of alternatively spliced NAGNAGs undergo tissue-specific regulation in mammals, and alternative splicing of strongly tissue-specific NAGNAGs was 10 times as likely to be conserved between species as was splicing of non-tissue-specific events, implying selective maintenance. Preferential use of the distal NAG was associated with distinct sequence features, including a more distal location of the branch point and presence of a pyrimidine immediately before the first NAG, and alteration of these features in a splicing reporter shifted splicing away from the distal site. Strikingly, alignments of orthologous exons revealed a ∼15-fold increase in the frequency of three base pair gaps at 3′ splice sites relative to nearby exon positions in both mammals and in Drosophila. Alternative splicing of NAGNAGs in human was associated with dramatically increased frequency of exon length changes at orthologous exon boundaries in rodents, and a model involving point mutations that create, destroy, or alter NAGNAGs can explain both the increased frequency and biased codon composition of gained/lost sequence observed at the beginnings of exons. This study shows that NAGNAG alternative splicing generates widespread differences between the proteomes of mammalian tissues, and suggests that the evolutionary trajectories of mammalian proteins are strongly biased by the locations and phases of the introns that interrupt coding sequences.
In order to translate a gene into protein, all of the non-coding regions (introns) need to be removed from the transcript and the coding regions (exons) stitched back together to make an mRNA. Most human genes are alternatively spliced, allowing the selection of different combinations of exons to produce multiple distinct mRNAs and proteins. Many types of alternative splicing are known to play crucial roles in biological processes including cell fate determination, tumor metabolism, and apoptosis. In this study, we investigated a form of alternative splicing in which competing adjacent 3′ splice sites (or splice acceptor sites) generate mRNAs differing by just an RNA triplet, the size of a single codon. This mode of alternative splicing, known as NAGNAG splicing, affects thousands of human genes and has been known for a decade, but its potential regulation, physiological importance, and conservation across species have been disputed. Using high-throughput sequencing of cDNA (“RNA-Seq”) from human and mouse tissues, we found that single-codon splicing often shows strong tissue specificity. Regulated NAGNAG alternative splice sites are selectively conserved between human and mouse genes, suggesting that they are important for organismal fitness. We identified features of the competing splice sites that influence NAGNAG splicing, and validated their effects in cultured cells. Furthermore, we found that this mode of splicing is associated with accelerated and highly biased protein evolution at exon boundaries. Taken together, our analyses demonstrate that the inclusion or exclusion of RNA triplets at exon boundaries can be effectively regulated by the splicing machinery, and highlight an unexpected connection between RNA processing and protein evolution.