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1.  A Detailed History of Intron-rich Eukaryotic Ancestors Inferred from a Global Survey of 100 Complete Genomes 
PLoS Computational Biology  2011;7(9):e1002150.
Protein-coding genes in eukaryotes are interrupted by introns, but intron densities widely differ between eukaryotic lineages. Vertebrates, some invertebrates and green plants have intron-rich genes, with 6–7 introns per kilobase of coding sequence, whereas most of the other eukaryotes have intron-poor genes. We reconstructed the history of intron gain and loss using a probabilistic Markov model (Markov Chain Monte Carlo, MCMC) on 245 orthologous genes from 99 genomes representing the three of the five supergroups of eukaryotes for which multiple genome sequences are available. Intron-rich ancestors are confidently reconstructed for each major group, with 53 to 74% of the human intron density inferred with 95% confidence for the Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor (LECA). The results of the MCMC reconstruction are compared with the reconstructions obtained using Maximum Likelihood (ML) and Dollo parsimony methods. An excellent agreement between the MCMC and ML inferences is demonstrated whereas Dollo parsimony introduces a noticeable bias in the estimations, typically yielding lower ancestral intron densities than MCMC and ML. Evolution of eukaryotic genes was dominated by intron loss, with substantial gain only at the bases of several major branches including plants and animals. The highest intron density, 120 to 130% of the human value, is inferred for the last common ancestor of animals. The reconstruction shows that the entire line of descent from LECA to mammals was intron-rich, a state conducive to the evolution of alternative splicing.
Author Summary
In eukaryotes, protein-coding genes are interrupted by non-coding introns. The intron densities widely differ, from 6–7 introns per kilobase of coding sequence in vertebrates, some invertebrates and plants, to only a few introns across the entire genome in many unicellular forms. We applied a robust statistical methodology, Markov Chain Monte Carlo, to reconstruct the history of intron gain and loss throughout the evolution of eukaryotes using a set of 245 homologous genes from 99 genomes that represent the diversity of eukaryotes. Intron-rich ancestors were confidently inferred for each major eukaryotic group including 53% to 74% of the human intron density for the last eukaryotic common ancestor, and 120% to 130% of the human value for the last common ancestor of animals. Evolution of eukaryotic genes involved primarily intron loss, with substantial gain only at the bases of several major branches including plants and animals. Thus, the common ancestor of all extant eukaryotes was a complex organism with a gene architecture resembling those in multicellular organisms. The line of descent from the last common ancestor to mammals was an uninterrupted intron-rich state that, given the error-prone splicing in intron-rich organisms, was conducive to the elaboration of functional alternative splicing.
doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002150
PMCID: PMC3174169  PMID: 21935348
2.  Phylogenetic Distribution of Intron Positions in Alpha-Amylase Genes of Bilateria Suggests Numerous Gains and Losses 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(5):e19673.
Most eukaryotes have at least some genes interrupted by introns. While it is well accepted that introns were already present at moderate density in the last eukaryote common ancestor, the conspicuous diversity of intron density among genomes suggests a complex evolutionary history, with marked differences between phyla. The question of the rates of intron gains and loss in the course of evolution and factors influencing them remains controversial. We have investigated a single gene family, alpha-amylase, in 55 species covering a variety of animal phyla. Comparison of intron positions across phyla suggests a complex history, with a likely ancestral intronless gene undergoing frequent intron loss and gain, leading to extant intron/exon structures that are highly variable, even among species from the same phylum. Because introns are known to play no regulatory role in this gene and there is no alternative splicing, the structural differences may be interpreted more easily: intron positions, sizes, losses or gains may be more likely related to factors linked to splicing mechanisms and requirements, and to recognition of introns and exons, or to more extrinsic factors, such as life cycle and population size. We have shown that intron losses outnumbered gains in recent periods, but that “resets” of intron positions occurred at the origin of several phyla, including vertebrates. Rates of gain and loss appear to be positively correlated. No phase preference was found. We also found evidence for parallel gains and for intron sliding. Presence of introns at given positions was correlated to a strong protosplice consensus sequence AG/G, which was much weaker in the absence of intron. In contrast, recent intron insertions were not associated with a specific sequence. In animal Amy genes, population size and generation time seem to have played only minor roles in shaping gene structures.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019673
PMCID: PMC3096672  PMID: 21611157
3.  Group II Introns: Mobile Ribozymes that Invade DNA 
SUMMARY
Group II introns are mobile ribozymes that self-splice from precursor RNAs to yield excised intron lariat RNAs, which then invade new genomic DNA sites by reverse splicing. The introns encode a reverse transcriptase that stabilizes the catalytically active RNA structure for forward and reverse splicing, and afterwards converts the integrated intron RNA back into DNA. The characteristics of group II introns suggest that they or their close relatives were evolutionary ancestors of spliceosomal introns, the spliceosome, and retrotransposons in eukaryotes. Further, their ribozyme-based DNA integration mechanism enabled the development of group II introns into gene targeting vectors (“targetrons”), which have the unique feature of readily programmable DNA target specificity.
Group II introns are mobile bacterial ribozymes that invade genomes by reverse splicing and reverse transcription. They may represent ancestors of eukaryotic spliceosomes and retrotransposons.
doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a003616
PMCID: PMC3140690  PMID: 20463000
4.  Origin and evolution of spliceosomal introns 
Biology Direct  2012;7:11.
Evolution of exon-intron structure of eukaryotic genes has been a matter of long-standing, intensive debate. The introns-early concept, later rebranded ‘introns first’ held that protein-coding genes were interrupted by numerous introns even at the earliest stages of life's evolution and that introns played a major role in the origin of proteins by facilitating recombination of sequences coding for small protein/peptide modules. The introns-late concept held that introns emerged only in eukaryotes and new introns have been accumulating continuously throughout eukaryotic evolution. Analysis of orthologous genes from completely sequenced eukaryotic genomes revealed numerous shared intron positions in orthologous genes from animals and plants and even between animals, plants and protists, suggesting that many ancestral introns have persisted since the last eukaryotic common ancestor (LECA). Reconstructions of intron gain and loss using the growing collection of genomes of diverse eukaryotes and increasingly advanced probabilistic models convincingly show that the LECA and the ancestors of each eukaryotic supergroup had intron-rich genes, with intron densities comparable to those in the most intron-rich modern genomes such as those of vertebrates. The subsequent evolution in most lineages of eukaryotes involved primarily loss of introns, with only a few episodes of substantial intron gain that might have accompanied major evolutionary innovations such as the origin of metazoa. The original invasion of self-splicing Group II introns, presumably originating from the mitochondrial endosymbiont, into the genome of the emerging eukaryote might have been a key factor of eukaryogenesis that in particular triggered the origin of endomembranes and the nucleus. Conversely, splicing errors gave rise to alternative splicing, a major contribution to the biological complexity of multicellular eukaryotes. There is no indication that any prokaryote has ever possessed a spliceosome or introns in protein-coding genes, other than relatively rare mobile self-splicing introns. Thus, the introns-first scenario is not supported by any evidence but exon-intron structure of protein-coding genes appears to have evolved concomitantly with the eukaryotic cell, and introns were a major factor of evolution throughout the history of eukaryotes. This article was reviewed by I. King Jordan, Manuel Irimia (nominated by Anthony Poole), Tobias Mourier (nominated by Anthony Poole), and Fyodor Kondrashov. For the complete reports, see the Reviewers’ Reports section.
doi:10.1186/1745-6150-7-11
PMCID: PMC3488318  PMID: 22507701
Intron sliding; Intron gain; Intron loss; Spliceosome; Splicing signals; Evolution of exon/intron structure; Alternative splicing; Phylogenetic trees; Mobile domains; Eukaryotic ancestor
5.  Endogenous Mechanisms for the Origins of Spliceosomal Introns 
Journal of Heredity  2009;100(5):591-596.
Over 30 years since their discovery, the origin of spliceosomal introns remains uncertain. One nearly universally accepted hypothesis maintains that spliceosomal introns originated from self-splicing group-II introns that invaded the uninterrupted genes of the last eukaryotic common ancestor (LECA) and proliferated by “insertion” events. Although this is a possible explanation for the original presence of introns and splicing machinery, the emphasis on a high number of insertion events in the genome of the LECA neglects a considerable body of empirical evidence showing that spliceosomal introns can simply arise from coding or, more generally, nonintronic sequences within genes. After presenting a concise overview of some of the most common hypotheses and mechanisms for intron origin, we propose two further hypotheses that are broadly based on central cellular processes: 1) internal gene duplication and 2) the response to aberrant and fortuitously spliced transcripts. These two nonmutually exclusive hypotheses provide a powerful way to explain the establishment of spliceosomal introns in eukaryotes without invoking an exogenous source.
doi:10.1093/jhered/esp062
PMCID: PMC2877546  PMID: 19635762
group-II introns; internal gene duplication; intronization; spliceosomal introns
6.  Comparative genomic analysis of fungal genomes reveals intron-rich ancestors 
Genome Biology  2007;8(10):R223.
Analysis of intron gain and loss in fungal genomes provides support for an intron-rich fungus-animal ancestor.
Background
Eukaryotic protein-coding genes are interrupted by spliceosomal introns, which are removed from transcripts before protein translation. Many facets of spliceosomal intron evolution, including age, mechanisms of origins, the role of natural selection, and the causes of the vast differences in intron number between eukaryotic species, remain debated. Genome sequencing and comparative analysis has made possible whole genome analysis of intron evolution to address these questions.
Results
We analyzed intron positions in 1,161 sets of orthologous genes across 25 eukaryotic species. We find strong support for an intron-rich fungus-animal ancestor, with more than four introns per kilobase, comparable to the highest known modern intron densities. Indeed, the fungus-animal ancestor is estimated to have had more introns than any of the extant fungi in this study. Thus, subsequent fungal evolution has been characterized by widespread and recurrent intron loss occurring in all fungal clades. These results reconcile three previously proposed methods for estimation of ancestral intron number, which previously gave very different estimates of ancestral intron number for eight eukaryotic species, as well as a fourth more recent method. We do not find a clear inverse correspondence between rates of intron loss and gain, contrary to the predictions of selection-based proposals for interspecific differences in intron number.
Conclusion
Our results underscore the high intron density of eukaryotic ancestors and the widespread importance of intron loss through eukaryotic evolution.
doi:10.1186/gb-2007-8-10-r223
PMCID: PMC2246297  PMID: 17949488
7.  Evolution of spliceosomal introns following endosymbiotic gene transfer 
Background
Spliceosomal introns are an ancient, widespread hallmark of eukaryotic genomes. Despite much research, many questions regarding the origin and evolution of spliceosomal introns remain unsolved, partly due to the difficulty of inferring ancestral gene structures. We circumvent this problem by using genes originated by endosymbiotic gene transfer, in which an intron-less structure at the time of the transfer can be assumed.
Results
By comparing the exon-intron structures of 64 mitochondrial-derived genes that were transferred to the nucleus at different evolutionary periods, we can trace the history of intron gains in different eukaryotic lineages. Our results show that the intron density of genes transferred relatively recently to the nuclear genome is similar to that of genes originated by more ancient transfers, indicating that gene structure can be rapidly shaped by intron gain after the integration of the gene into the genome and that this process is mainly determined by forces acting specifically on each lineage. We analyze 12 cases of mitochondrial-derived genes that have been transferred to the nucleus independently in more than one lineage.
Conclusions
Remarkably, the proportion of shared intron positions that were gained independently in homologous genes is similar to that proportion observed in genes that were transferred prior to the speciation event and whose shared intron positions might be due to vertical inheritance. A particular case of parallel intron gain in the nad7 gene is discussed in more detail.
doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-57
PMCID: PMC2834692  PMID: 20178587
8.  GenePainter: a fast tool for aligning gene structures of eukaryotic protein families, visualizing the alignments and mapping gene structures onto protein structures 
BMC Bioinformatics  2013;14:77.
Background
All sequenced eukaryotic genomes have been shown to possess at least a few introns. This includes those unicellular organisms, which were previously suspected to be intron-less. Therefore, gene splicing must have been present at least in the last common ancestor of the eukaryotes. To explain the evolution of introns, basically two mutually exclusive concepts have been developed. The introns-early hypothesis says that already the very first protein-coding genes contained introns while the introns-late concept asserts that eukaryotic genes gained introns only after the emergence of the eukaryotic lineage. A very important aspect in this respect is the conservation of intron positions within homologous genes of different taxa.
Results
GenePainter is a standalone application for mapping gene structure information onto protein multiple sequence alignments. Based on the multiple sequence alignments the gene structures are aligned down to single nucleotides. GenePainter accounts for variable lengths in exons and introns, respects split codons at intron junctions and is able to handle sequencing and assembly errors, which are possible reasons for frame-shifts in exons and gaps in genome assemblies. Thus, even gene structures of considerably divergent proteins can properly be compared, as it is needed in phylogenetic analyses. Conserved intron positions can also be mapped to user-provided protein structures. For their visualization GenePainter provides scripts for the molecular graphics system PyMol.
Conclusions
GenePainter is a tool to analyse gene structure conservation providing various visualization options. A stable version of GenePainter for all operating systems as well as documentation and example data are available at http://www.motorprotein.de/genepainter.html.
doi:10.1186/1471-2105-14-77
PMCID: PMC3605371  PMID: 23496949
Exon; Intron; Gene structure; Evolution
9.  Phase distribution of spliceosomal introns: implications for intron origin 
Background
The origin of spliceosomal introns is the central subject of the introns-early versus introns-late debate. The distribution of intron phases is non-uniform, with an excess of phase-0 introns. Introns-early explains this by speculating that a fraction of present-day introns were present between minigenes in the progenote and therefore must lie in phase-0. In contrast, introns-late predicts that the nonuniformity of intron phase distribution reflects the nonrandomness of intron insertions.
Results
In this paper, we tested the two theories using analyses of intron phase distribution. We inferred the evolution of intron phase distribution from a dataset of 684 gene orthologs from seven eukaryotes using a maximum likelihood method. We also tested whether the observed intron phase distributions from 10 eukaryotes can be explained by intron insertions on a genome-wide scale. In contrast to the prediction of introns-early, the inferred evolution of intron phase distribution showed that the proportion of phase-0 introns increased over evolution. Consistent with introns-late, the observed intron phase distributions matched those predicted by an intron insertion model quite well.
Conclusion
Our results strongly support the introns-late hypothesis of the origin of spliceosomal introns.
doi:10.1186/1471-2148-6-69
PMCID: PMC1574350  PMID: 16959043
10.  Gene make-up: rapid and massive intron gains after horizontal transfer of a bacterial α-amylase gene to Basidiomycetes 
Background
Increasing genome data show that introns, a hallmark of eukaryotes, already existed at a high density in the last common ancestor of extant eukaryotes. However, intron content is highly variable among species. The tempo of intron gains and losses has been irregular and several factors may explain why some genomes are intron-poor whereas other are intron-rich.
Results
We studied the dynamics of intron gains and losses in an α-amylase gene, whose product breaks down starch and other polysaccharides. It was transferred from an Actinobacterium to an ancestor of Agaricomycotina. This gene underwent further duplications in several species. The results indicate a high rate of intron insertions soon after the gene settled in the fungal genome. A number of these oldest introns, regularly scattered along the gene, remained conserved. Subsequent gains and losses were lineage dependent, with a majority of losses. Moreover, a few species exhibited a high number of both specific intron gains and losses in recent periods. There was little sequence conservation around insertion sites, then probably little information for splicing, whereas splicing sites, inside introns, showed typical and conserved patterns. There was little variation of intron size.
Conclusions
Since most Basidiomycetes have intron-rich genomes and this richness was ancestral in Fungi, long before the transfer event, we suggest that the new gene was shaped to comply with requirements of the splicing machinery, such as short exon and intron sizes, in order to be correctly processed.
doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-40
PMCID: PMC3584928  PMID: 23405862
Glycosyl hydrolase; Lateral gene transfer; Fungi; Gene duplication; Intron gain; Protosplice
11.  Evolutionary Convergence on Highly-Conserved 3′ Intron Structures in Intron-Poor Eukaryotes and Insights into the Ancestral Eukaryotic Genome 
PLoS Genetics  2008;4(8):e1000148.
The presence of spliceosomal introns in eukaryotes raises a range of questions about genomic evolution. Along with the fundamental mysteries of introns' initial proliferation and persistence, the evolutionary forces acting on intron sequences remain largely mysterious. Intron number varies across species from a few introns per genome to several introns per gene, and the elements of intron sequences directly implicated in splicing vary from degenerate to strict consensus motifs. We report a 50-species comparative genomic study of intron sequences across most eukaryotic groups. We find two broad and striking patterns. First, we find that some highly intron-poor lineages have undergone evolutionary convergence to strong 3′ consensus intron structures. This finding holds for both branch point sequence and distance between the branch point and the 3′ splice site. Interestingly, this difference appears to exist within the genomes of green alga of the genus Ostreococcus, which exhibit highly constrained intron sequences through most of the intron-poor genome, but not in one much more intron-dense genomic region. Second, we find evidence that ancestral genomes contained highly variable branch point sequences, similar to more complex modern intron-rich eukaryotic lineages. In addition, ancestral structures are likely to have included polyT tails similar to those in metazoans and plants, which we found in a variety of protist lineages. Intriguingly, intron structure evolution appears to be quite different across lineages experiencing different types of genome reduction: whereas lineages with very few introns tend towards highly regular intronic sequences, lineages with very short introns tend towards highly degenerate sequences. Together, these results attest to the complex nature of ancestral eukaryotic splicing, the qualitatively different evolutionary forces acting on intron structures across modern lineages, and the impressive evolutionary malleability of eukaryotic gene structures.
Author Summary
The spliceosomal introns that interrupt eukaryotic genes show great number and sequence variation across species, from the rare, highly uniform yeast introns to the ubiquitous and highly variable vertebrate intron sequences. The causes of these differences remain mysterious. We studied sequences of intron branch points and 3′ termini in 50 eukaryotic species. All intron-rich species exhibit variable 3′ sequences. However, intron-poor species range from variable sequences, to uniform branch point motifs, to uniform branch point motifs in uniform positions along the intronic sequence. This is a more complex pattern than the clear relationship between intron number and 5′ intron sequence uniformity found previously. The correspondence of sequence uniformity and intron number extends to species of the green algal genus Ostreococcus, in which the single intron-rich genomic region shows far more variable intron sequences than in the otherwise intron-poor genome. We suggest that different concentrations of spliceosomal complexes may explain these differences. In addition, we report the existence of 3′ polyT tails in diverse eukaryotic protists, suggesting that this structure is ancestral. Together, these results underscore the complexity of ancestral eukaryotic splicing, the qualitatively different evolutionary forces acting on intron sequences in modern eukaryotes, and the impressive evolutionary malleability of eukaryotic genes.
doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000148
PMCID: PMC2483917  PMID: 18688272
12.  The origin of introns and their role in eukaryogenesis: a compromise solution to the introns-early versus introns-late debate? 
Biology Direct  2006;1:22.
Background
Ever since the discovery of 'genes in pieces' and mRNA splicing in eukaryotes, origin and evolution of spliceosomal introns have been considered within the conceptual framework of the 'introns early' versus 'introns late' debate. The 'introns early' hypothesis, which is closely linked to the so-called exon theory of gene evolution, posits that protein-coding genes were interrupted by numerous introns even at the earliest stages of life's evolution and that introns played a major role in the origin of proteins by facilitating recombination of sequences coding for small protein/peptide modules. Under this scenario, the absence of spliceosomal introns in prokaryotes is considered to be a result of "genome streamlining". The 'introns late' hypothesis counters that spliceosomal introns emerged only in eukaryotes, and moreover, have been inserted into protein-coding genes continuously throughout the evolution of eukaryotes. Beyond the formal dilemma, the more substantial side of this debate has to do with possible roles of introns in the evolution of eukaryotes.
Results
I argue that several lines of evidence now suggest a coherent solution to the introns-early versus introns-late debate, and the emerging picture of intron evolution integrates aspects of both views although, formally, there seems to be no support for the original version of introns-early. Firstly, there is growing evidence that spliceosomal introns evolved from group II self-splicing introns which are present, usually, in small numbers, in many bacteria, and probably, moved into the evolving eukaryotic genome from the α-proteobacterial progenitor of the mitochondria. Secondly, the concept of a primordial pool of 'virus-like' genetic elements implies that self-splicing introns are among the most ancient genetic entities. Thirdly, reconstructions of the ancestral state of eukaryotic genes suggest that the last common ancestor of extant eukaryotes had an intron-rich genome. Thus, it appears that ancestors of spliceosomal introns, indeed, have existed since the earliest stages of life's evolution, in a formal agreement with the introns-early scenario. However, there is no evidence that these ancient introns ever became widespread before the emergence of eukaryotes, hence, the central tenet of introns-early, the role of introns in early evolution of proteins, has no support. However, the demonstration that numerous introns invaded eukaryotic genes at the outset of eukaryotic evolution and that subsequent intron gain has been limited in many eukaryotic lineages implicates introns as an ancestral feature of eukaryotic genomes and refutes radical versions of introns-late. Perhaps, most importantly, I argue that the intron invasion triggered other pivotal events of eukaryogenesis, including the emergence of the spliceosome, the nucleus, the linear chromosomes, the telomerase, and the ubiquitin signaling system. This concept of eukaryogenesis, in a sense, revives some tenets of the exon hypothesis, by assigning to introns crucial roles in eukaryotic evolutionary innovation.
Conclusion
The scenario of the origin and evolution of introns that is best compatible with the results of comparative genomics and theoretical considerations goes as follows: self-splicing introns since the earliest stages of life's evolution – numerous spliceosomal introns invading genes of the emerging eukaryote during eukaryogenesis – subsequent lineage-specific loss and gain of introns. The intron invasion, probably, spawned by the mitochondrial endosymbiont, might have critically contributed to the emergence of the principal features of the eukaryotic cell. This scenario combines aspects of the introns-early and introns-late views.
Reviewers
this article was reviewed by W. Ford Doolittle, James Darnell (nominated by W. Ford Doolittle), William Martin, and Anthony Poole.
doi:10.1186/1745-6150-1-22
PMCID: PMC1570339  PMID: 16907971
13.  Isolation and Characterization of Functional Tripartite Group II Introns Using a Tn5-Based Genetic Screen 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(8):e41589.
Background
Group II introns are RNA enzymes that splice themselves from pre-mRNA transcripts. Most bacterial group II introns harbour an open reading frame (ORF), coding for a protein with reverse transcriptase, maturase and occasionally DNA binding and endonuclease activities. Some ORF-containing group II introns were shown to be mobile retroelements that invade new DNA target sites. From an evolutionary perspective, group II introns are hypothesized to be the ancestors of the spliceosome-dependent nuclear introns and the small nuclear RNAs (snRNAs – U1, U2, U4, U5 and U6) that are important functional elements of the spliceosome machinery. The ability of some group II introns fragmented in two or three pieces to assemble and undergo splicing in trans supports the theory that spliceosomal snRNAs evolved from portions of group II introns.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We used a transposon-based genetic screen to explore the ability of the Ll.LtrB group II intron from the Gram-positive bacterium Lactococcus lactis to be fragmented into three pieces in vivo. Trans-splicing tripartite variants of Ll.LtrB were selected using a highly efficient and sensitive trans-splicing/conjugation screen. We report that numerous fragmentation sites located throughout Ll.LtrB support tripartite trans-splicing, showing that this intron is remarkably tolerant to fragmentation.
Conclusions/Significance
This work unveils the great versatility of group II intron fragments to assemble and accurately trans-splice their flanking exons in vivo. The selected introns represent the first evidence of functional tripartite group II introns in bacteria and provide experimental support for the proposed evolutionary relationship between group II introns and snRNAs.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041589
PMCID: PMC3410883  PMID: 22876289
14.  Mechanisms Used for Genomic Proliferation by Thermophilic Group II Introns 
PLoS Biology  2010;8(6):e1000391.
Studies of mobile group II introns from a thermophilic cyanobacterium reveal how these introns proliferate within genomes and might explain the origin of introns and retroelements in higher organisms.
Mobile group II introns, which are found in bacterial and organellar genomes, are site-specific retroelments hypothesized to be evolutionary ancestors of spliceosomal introns and retrotransposons in higher organisms. Most bacteria, however, contain no more than one or a few group II introns, making it unclear how introns could have proliferated to higher copy numbers in eukaryotic genomes. An exception is the thermophilic cyanobacterium Thermosynechococcus elongatus, which contains 28 closely related copies of a group II intron, constituting ∼1.3% of the genome. Here, by using a combination of bioinformatics and mobility assays at different temperatures, we identified mechanisms that contribute to the proliferation of T. elongatus group II introns. These mechanisms include divergence of DNA target specificity to avoid target site saturation; adaptation of some intron-encoded reverse transcriptases to splice and mobilize multiple degenerate introns that do not encode reverse transcriptases, leading to a common splicing apparatus; and preferential insertion within other mobile introns or insertion elements, which provide new unoccupied sites in expanding non-essential DNA regions. Additionally, unlike mesophilic group II introns, the thermophilic T. elongatus introns rely on elevated temperatures to help promote DNA strand separation, enabling access to a larger number of DNA target sites by base pairing of the intron RNA, with minimal constraint from the reverse transcriptase. Our results provide insight into group II intron proliferation mechanisms and show that higher temperatures, which are thought to have prevailed on Earth during the emergence of eukaryotes, favor intron proliferation by increasing the accessibility of DNA target sites. We also identify actively mobile thermophilic introns, which may be useful for structural studies, gene targeting in thermophiles, and as a source of thermostable reverse transcriptases.
Author Summary
Group II introns are bacterial mobile elements thought to be ancestors of introns and retroelements in higher organisms. They comprise a catalytically active intron RNA and an intron-encoded reverse transcriptase, which promotes splicing of the intron from precursor RNA and integration of the excised intron into new genomic sites. While most bacteria have small numbers of group II introns, in the thermophilic cyanobacterium Thermosynechococcus elongatus, a single intron has proliferated and constitutes 1.3% of the genome. Here, we investigated how the T. elongatus introns proliferated to such high copy numbers. We found divergence of DNA target specificity, evolution of reverse transcriptases that splice and mobilize multiple degenerate introns, and preferential insertion into other mobile introns or insertion elements, which provide new integration sites in non-essential regions of the genome. Further, unlike mesophilic group II introns, the thermophilic T. elongatus introns rely on higher temperatures to help promote DNA strand separation, facilitating access to DNA target sites. We speculate how these mechanisms, including elevated temperature, might have contributed to intron proliferation in early eukaryotes. We also identify actively mobile thermophilic introns, which may be useful for structural studies and biotechnological applications.
doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000391
PMCID: PMC2882425  PMID: 20543989
15.  Analysis of Ribosomal Protein Gene Structures: Implications for Intron Evolution  
PLoS Genetics  2006;2(3):e25.
Many spliceosomal introns exist in the eukaryotic nuclear genome. Despite much research, the evolution of spliceosomal introns remains poorly understood. In this paper, we tried to gain insights into intron evolution from a novel perspective by comparing the gene structures of cytoplasmic ribosomal proteins (CRPs) and mitochondrial ribosomal proteins (MRPs), which are held to be of archaeal and bacterial origin, respectively. We analyzed 25 homologous pairs of CRP and MRP genes that together had a total of 527 intron positions. We found that all 12 of the intron positions shared by CRP and MRP genes resulted from parallel intron gains and none could be considered to be “conserved,” i.e., descendants of the same ancestor. This was supported further by the high frequency of proto-splice sites at these shared positions; proto-splice sites are proposed to be sites for intron insertion. Although we could not definitively disprove that spliceosomal introns were already present in the last universal common ancestor, our results lend more support to the idea that introns were gained late. At least, our results show that MRP genes were intronless at the time of endosymbiosis. The parallel intron gains between CRP and MRP genes accounted for 2.3% of total intron positions, which should provide a reliable estimate for future inferences of intron evolution.
Synopsis
Genes in eukaryotes are usually intervened by extra bits of DNA sequence, called introns, that have to be removed after the genes are transcribed into RNA. Why do introns exist in eukaryotic genes? What is the reason for the increased intron density in higher eukaryotes? There is much that is not known about introns. This research tries to clarify the evolutionary process by which introns arose by comparing the gene structures of two types of ribosomal proteins; one in cytoplasm and the other in mitochondria of the cell. Since cytoplasm and mitochondria are of archaeal and bacterial origin, respectively, cytoplasmic ribosomal proteins (CRPs) and mitochondrial ribosomal proteins (MRPs) are believed to diverge at the same time with the divergence of archaea and bacteria. Thus, a comparative analysis of CRP and MRP genes may reveal whether introns already existed at the last common ancestor of archaea and bacteria (introns-early) or whether they emerged late (introns-late). The results make it clear, at least, that all of the introns in MRP genes were gained during the course of eukaryotic evolution and therefore lend more support to the introns-late theory.
doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0020025
PMCID: PMC1386722  PMID: 16518464
16.  Analysis of Ribosomal Protein Gene Structures: Implications for Intron Evolution  
PLoS Genetics  2006;2(3):e25.
Many spliceosomal introns exist in the eukaryotic nuclear genome. Despite much research, the evolution of spliceosomal introns remains poorly understood. In this paper, we tried to gain insights into intron evolution from a novel perspective by comparing the gene structures of cytoplasmic ribosomal proteins (CRPs) and mitochondrial ribosomal proteins (MRPs), which are held to be of archaeal and bacterial origin, respectively. We analyzed 25 homologous pairs of CRP and MRP genes that together had a total of 527 intron positions. We found that all 12 of the intron positions shared by CRP and MRP genes resulted from parallel intron gains and none could be considered to be “conserved,” i.e., descendants of the same ancestor. This was supported further by the high frequency of proto-splice sites at these shared positions; proto-splice sites are proposed to be sites for intron insertion. Although we could not definitively disprove that spliceosomal introns were already present in the last universal common ancestor, our results lend more support to the idea that introns were gained late. At least, our results show that MRP genes were intronless at the time of endosymbiosis. The parallel intron gains between CRP and MRP genes accounted for 2.3% of total intron positions, which should provide a reliable estimate for future inferences of intron evolution.
Synopsis
Genes in eukaryotes are usually intervened by extra bits of DNA sequence, called introns, that have to be removed after the genes are transcribed into RNA. Why do introns exist in eukaryotic genes? What is the reason for the increased intron density in higher eukaryotes? There is much that is not known about introns. This research tries to clarify the evolutionary process by which introns arose by comparing the gene structures of two types of ribosomal proteins; one in cytoplasm and the other in mitochondria of the cell. Since cytoplasm and mitochondria are of archaeal and bacterial origin, respectively, cytoplasmic ribosomal proteins (CRPs) and mitochondrial ribosomal proteins (MRPs) are believed to diverge at the same time with the divergence of archaea and bacteria. Thus, a comparative analysis of CRP and MRP genes may reveal whether introns already existed at the last common ancestor of archaea and bacteria (introns-early) or whether they emerged late (introns-late). The results make it clear, at least, that all of the introns in MRP genes were gained during the course of eukaryotic evolution and therefore lend more support to the introns-late theory.
doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0020025
PMCID: PMC1386722  PMID: 16518464
17.  Intron Gains and Losses in the Evolution of Fusarium and Cryptococcus Fungi 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2012;4(11):1148-1161.
The presence of spliceosomal introns in eukaryotic genes poses a major puzzle for the study of genome evolution. Intron densities vary enormously among distant lineages. However, the mechanisms driving intron gains are poorly understood and very few intron gains and losses have been documented over short evolutionary time spans. Fungi emerged recently as excellent models to study intron evolution and “reverse splicing” was found to be a major driver of recent intron gains in a clade of ascomycete fungi. We screened a total of 38 genomes from two fungal clades important in medicine and agriculture to identify intron gains and losses both within and between species. We detected 86 and 198 variable intron positions in the Cryptococcus and Fusarium clades, respectively. Some genes underwent extensive changes in their exon–intron structure, with up to six variable intron positions per gene. We identified a very recently gained intron in a group of tomato-infecting strains belonging to the F. oxysporum species complex. In the human pathogen C. gattii, we found recent intron losses in subtypes of the species. The two studied fungal clades provided evidence for extensive changes in their exon–intron structure within and among closely related species. We show that both intronization of previously coding DNA and insertion of exogenous DNA are the major drivers of intron gains.
doi:10.1093/gbe/evs091
PMCID: PMC3514964  PMID: 23054310
spliceosomal introns; intron gains; Fusarium; Cryptococcus; population genomics
18.  Elimination of a group II intron from a plastid gene causes a mutant phenotype 
Nucleic Acids Research  2011;39(12):5181-5192.
Group II introns are found in bacteria and cell organelles (plastids, mitochondria) and are thought to represent the evolutionary ancestors of spliceosomal introns. It is generally believed that group II introns are selfish genetic elements that do not have any function. Here, we have scrutinized this assumption by analyzing two group II introns that interrupt a plastid gene (ycf3) involved in photosystem assembly. Using stable transformation of the plastid genome, we have generated mutant plants that lack either intron 1 or intron 2 or both. Interestingly, the deletion of intron 1 caused a strong mutant phenotype. We show that the mutants are deficient in photosystem I and that this deficiency is directly related to impaired ycf3 function. We further show that, upon deletion of intron 1, the splicing of intron 2 is strongly inhibited. Our data demonstrate that (i) the loss of a group II intron is not necessarily phenotypically neutral and (ii) the splicing of one intron can depend on the presence of another.
doi:10.1093/nar/gkr105
PMCID: PMC3130276  PMID: 21357608
19.  Intron Dynamics in Ribosomal Protein Genes 
PLoS ONE  2007;2(1):e141.
The role of spliceosomal introns in eukaryotic genomes remains obscure. A large scale analysis of intron presence/absence patterns in many gene families and species is a necessary step to clarify the role of these introns. In this analysis, we used a maximum likelihood method to reconstruct the evolution of 2,961 introns in a dataset of 76 ribosomal protein genes from 22 eukaryotes and validated the results by a maximum parsimony method. Our results show that the trends of intron gain and loss differed across species in a given kingdom but appeared to be consistent within subphyla. Most subphyla in the dataset diverged around 1 billion years ago, when the “Big Bang” radiation occurred. We speculate that spliceosomal introns may play a role in the explosion of many eukaryotes at the Big Bang radiation.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000141
PMCID: PMC1764039  PMID: 17206276
20.  A high density of ancient spliceosomal introns in oxymonad excavates 
Background
Certain eukaryotic genomes, such as those of the amitochondriate parasites Giardia and Trichomonas, have very low intron densities, so low that canonical spliceosomal introns have only recently been discovered through genome sequencing. These organisms were formerly thought to be ancient eukaryotes that diverged before introns originated, or at least became common. Now however, they are thought to be members of a supergroup known as excavates, whose members generally appear to have low densities of canonical introns. Here we have used environmental expressed sequence tag (EST) sequencing to identify 17 genes from the uncultivable oxymonad Streblomastix strix, to survey intron densities in this most poorly studied excavate group.
Results
We find that Streblomastix genes contain an unexpectedly high intron density of about 1.1 introns per gene. Moreover, over 50% of these are at positions shared between a broad spectrum of eukaryotes, suggesting theyare very ancient introns, potentially present in the last common ancestor of eukaryotes.
Conclusion
The Streblomastix data show that the genome of the ancestor of excavates likely contained many introns and the subsequent evolution of introns has proceeded very differently in different excavate lineages: in Streblomastix there has been much stasis while in Trichomonas and Giardia most introns have been lost.
doi:10.1186/1471-2148-6-34
PMCID: PMC1501061  PMID: 16638131
21.  Evolutionary dynamics of U12-type spliceosomal introns 
Background
Many multicellular eukaryotes have two types of spliceosomes for the removal of introns from messenger RNA precursors. The major (U2) spliceosome processes the vast majority of introns, referred to as U2-type introns, while the minor (U12) spliceosome removes a small fraction (less than 0.5%) of introns, referred to as U12-type introns. U12-type introns have distinct sequence elements and usually occur together in genes with U2-type introns. A phylogenetic distribution of U12-type introns shows that the minor splicing pathway appeared very early in eukaryotic evolution and has been lost repeatedly.
Results
We have investigated the evolution of U12-type introns among eighteen metazoan genomes by analyzing orthologous U12-type intron clusters. Examination of gain, loss, and type switching shows that intron type is remarkably conserved among vertebrates. Among 180 intron clusters, only eight show intron loss in any vertebrate species and only five show conversion between the U12 and the U2-type. Although there are only nineteen U12-type introns in Drosophila melanogaster, we found one case of U2 to U12-type conversion, apparently mediated by the activation of cryptic U12 splice sites early in the dipteran lineage. Overall, loss of U12-type introns is more common than conversion to U2-type and the U12 to U2 conversion occurs more frequently among introns of the GT-AG subtype than among introns of the AT-AC subtype. We also found support for natural U12-type introns with non-canonical terminal dinucleotides (CT-AC, GG-AG, and GA-AG) that have not been previously reported.
Conclusions
Although complete loss of the U12-type spliceosome has occurred repeatedly, U12 introns are extremely stable in some taxa, including eutheria. Loss of U12 introns or the genes containing them is more common than conversion to the U2-type. The degeneracy of U12-type terminal dinucleotides among natural U12-type introns is higher than previously thought.
doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-47
PMCID: PMC2831892  PMID: 20163699
22.  Nonsense-Mediated Decay Enables Intron Gain in Drosophila 
PLoS Genetics  2010;6(1):e1000819.
Intron number varies considerably among genomes, but despite their fundamental importance, the mutational mechanisms and evolutionary processes underlying the expansion of intron number remain unknown. Here we show that Drosophila, in contrast to most eukaryotic lineages, is still undergoing a dramatic rate of intron gain. These novel introns carry significantly weaker splice sites that may impede their identification by the spliceosome. Novel introns are more likely to encode a premature termination codon (PTC), indicating that nonsense-mediated decay (NMD) functions as a backup for weak splicing of new introns. Our data suggest that new introns originate when genomic insertions with weak splice sites are hidden from selection by NMD. This mechanism reduces the sequence requirement imposed on novel introns and implies that the capacity of the spliceosome to recognize weak splice sites was a prerequisite for intron gain during eukaryotic evolution.
Author Summary
The surprising observation 30 years ago that genes are interrupted by non-coding introns changed our view of gene architecture. Intron number varies dramatically among species; ranging from nine introns/gene in humans to less than one in some simple eukyarotes. Here we ask where new introns come from and how they are maintained in a population. We find that novel introns do not arise from pre-existing introns, although the mechanisms that generate novel introns remain unclear. We also show that novel introns carry only weak signals for their identification and removal, and therefore depend on nonsense-mediated decay (NMD). NMD maintains RNA quality control by degrading transcripts that have not been spliced properly. We propose that NMD shelters novel introns from natural selection. This increases the likelihood that a novel intron will rise in frequency and be maintained within a population, thus increasing the rate of intron gain.
doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000819
PMCID: PMC2809761  PMID: 20107520
23.  The significant other: splicing by the minor spliceosome 
The removal of non-coding sequences, introns, from the mRNA precursors is an essential step in eukaryotic gene expression. U12-type introns are a minor subgroup of introns, distinct from the major or U2-type introns. U12-type introns are present in most eukaryotes but only account for less than 0.5% of all introns in any given genome. They are processed by a specific U12-dependent spliceosome, which is similar to, but distinct from, the major spliceosome. U12-type introns are spliced somewhat less efficiently than the major introns, and it is believed that this limits the expression of the genes containing such introns. Recent findings on the role of U12-dependent splicing in development and human disease have shown that it can also affect multiple cellular processes not directly related to the functions of the host genes of U12-type introns. At the same time, advances in understanding the regulation and phylogenetic distribution of the minor spliceosome are starting to shed light on how the U12-type introns and the minor spliceosome may have evolved. © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
doi:10.1002/wrna.1141
PMCID: PMC3584512  PMID: 23074130
24.  Genome reduction as the dominant mode of evolution 
Bioessays  2013;35(9):829-837.
A common belief is that evolution generally proceeds towards greater complexity at both the organismal and the genomic level, numerous examples of reductive evolution of parasites and symbionts notwithstanding. However, recent evolutionary reconstructions challenge this notion. Two notable examples are the reconstruction of the complex archaeal ancestor and the intron-rich ancestor of eukaryotes. In both cases, evolution in most of the lineages was apparently dominated by extensive loss of genes and introns, respectively. These and many other cases of reductive evolution are consistent with a general model composed of two distinct evolutionary phases: the short, explosive, innovation phase that leads to an abrupt increase in genome complexity, followed by a much longer reductive phase, which encompasses either a neutral ratchet of genetic material loss or adaptive genome streamlining. Quantitatively, the evolution of genomes appears to be dominated by reduction and simplification, punctuated by episodes of complexification.
doi:10.1002/bies.201300037
PMCID: PMC3840695  PMID: 23801028
ancestral reconstruction; archaea; genome complexification; genome reduction; horizontal gene transfer; orthologs
25.  Group II intron splicing factors in plant mitochondria 
Group II introns are large catalytic RNAs (ribozymes) which are found in bacteria and organellar genomes of several lower eukaryotes, but are particularly prevalent within the mitochondrial genomes (mtDNA) in plants, where they reside in numerous critical genes. Their excision is therefore essential for mitochondria biogenesis and respiratory functions, and is facilitated in vivo by various protein cofactors. Typical group II introns are classified as mobile genetic elements, consisting of the self-splicing ribozyme and its intron-encoded maturase protein. A hallmark of maturases is that they are intron specific, acting as cofactors which bind their own cognate containing pre-mRNAs to facilitate splicing. However, the plant organellar introns have diverged considerably from their bacterial ancestors, such as they lack many regions which are necessary for splicing and also lost their evolutionary related maturase ORFs. In fact, only a single maturase has been retained in the mtDNA of various angiosperms: the matR gene encoded in the fourth intron of the NADH-dehydrogenase subunit 1 (nad1 intron 4). Their degeneracy and the absence of cognate ORFs suggest that the splicing of plant mitochondria introns is assisted by trans-acting cofactors. Interestingly, in addition to MatR, the nuclear genomes of angiosperms also harbor four genes (nMat 1-4), which are closely related to maturases and contain N-terminal mitochondrial localization signals. Recently, we established the roles of two of these paralogs in Arabidopsis, nMAT1 and nMAT2, in the splicing of mitochondrial introns. In addition to the nMATs, genetic screens led to the identification of other genes encoding various factors, which are required for the splicing and processing of mitochondrial introns in plants. In this review we will summarize recent data on the splicing and processing of mitochondrial introns and their implication in plant development and physiology, with a focus on maturases and their accessory splicing cofactors.
doi:10.3389/fpls.2014.00035
PMCID: PMC3927076  PMID: 24600456
group II intron; splicing; maturase; splicing factor; respiration; mitochondria; plant

Results 1-25 (507414)