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.
Intron sliding; Intron gain; Intron loss; Spliceosome; Splicing signals; Evolution of exon/intron structure; Alternative splicing; Phylogenetic trees; Mobile domains; Eukaryotic ancestor
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.
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.
Our results strongly support the introns-late hypothesis of the origin of spliceosomal introns.
Analysis of intron gain and loss in fungal genomes provides support for an intron-rich fungus-animal ancestor.
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.
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.
Our results underscore the high intron density of eukaryotic ancestors and the widespread importance of intron loss through eukaryotic evolution.
The origin of present day introns is a subject of spirited debate. Any intron evolution theory must account for not only nuclear spliceosomal introns but also their antecedents. The evolution of group II introns is fundamental to this debate, since group II introns are the proposed progenitors of nuclear spliceosomal introns and are found in ancient genes from modern organisms. We have studied the evolution of chloroplast introns and twintrons (introns within introns) in the genus Euglena. Our hypothesis is that Euglena chloroplast introns arose late in the evolution of this lineage and that twintrons were formed by the insertion of one or more introns into existing introns. In the present study we find that 22 out of 26 introns surveyed in six different photosynthesis-related genes from the plastid DNA of Euglena gracilis are not present in one or more basally branching Euglena spp. These results are supportive of a late origin for Euglena chloroplast group II introns. The psbT gene in Euglena viridis, a basally branching Euglena species, contains a single intron in the identical position to a psbT twintron from E.gracilis, a derived species. The E.viridis intron, when compared with 99 other Euglena group II introns, is most similar to the external intron of the E.gracilis psbT twintron. Based on these data, the addition of introns to the ancestral psbT intron in the common ancester of E.viridis and E.gracilis gave rise to the psbT twintron in E.gracilis.
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.
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.
The spliceosome, a sophisticated molecular machine involved in the removal of intervening sequences from the coding sections of eukaryotic genes, appeared and subsequently evolved rapidly during the early stages of eukaryotic evolution. The last eukaryotic common ancestor (LECA) had both complex spliceosomal machinery and some spliceosomal introns, yet little is known about the early stages of evolution of the spliceosomal apparatus. The Sm/Lsm family of proteins has been suggested as one of the earliest components of the emerging spliceosome and hence provides a first in-depth glimpse into the evolving spliceosomal apparatus. An analysis of 335 Sm and Sm-like genes from 80 species across all three kingdoms of life reveals two significant observations. First, the eukaryotic Sm/Lsm family underwent two rapid waves of duplication with subsequent divergence resulting in 14 distinct genes. Each wave resulted in a more sophisticated spliceosome, reflecting a possible jump in the complexity of the evolving eukaryotic cell. Second, an unusually high degree of conservation in intron positions is observed within individual orthologous Sm/Lsm genes and between some of the Sm/Lsm paralogs. This suggests that functional spliceosomal introns existed before the emergence of the complete Sm/Lsm family of proteins; hence, spliceosomal machinery with considerably fewer components than today's spliceosome was already functional.
The spliceosome is a complex molecular machine that removes intervening sequences (introns) from mRNAs. It is unique to eukaryotes. Although prokaryotes have self-splicing introns, they completely lack spliceosomal introns and the spliceosome itself. Yet even the simplest eukaryotic organisms have introns and a rather complex spliceosomal apparatus. Little is known about how this amazing machine rapidly evolved in early eukaryotes. Here, we attempt to reconstruct a part of this evolutionary process using one of the most fundamental components of the spliceosome—the Sm and Lsm family of proteins. Using sequence and structure analysis as well as the analysis of the intron positions in Sm and Lsm genes in conjunction with a wealth of published data, we propose a plausible scenario for some aspects of spliceosomal evolution. In particular, we suggest that the Lsm family of genes could have been the first and the most essential component that allowed rudimentary splicing of early spliceosomal introns. Extensive duplications of Lsm genes and the later rise of the Sm gene family likely reflect a gradual increase in complexity of the spliceosome.
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.
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.
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.
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.
group-II introns; internal gene duplication; intronization; spliceosomal introns
Evolutionary reconstructions using maximum likelihood methods point to unexpectedly high densities of introns in protein-coding genes of ancestral eukaryotic forms including the last common ancestor of all extant eukaryotes. Combined with the evidence of the origin of spliceosomal introns from invading Group II self-splicing introns, these results suggest that early ancestral eukaryotic genomes consisted of up to 80% sequences derived from Group II introns, a much greater contribution of introns than that seen in any extant genome. An organism with such an unusual genome architecture could survive only under conditions of a severe population bottleneck.
effective population size; endosymbiosis; group II self-splicing introns; origin of eukaryotes; spliceosomal introns
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spliceosomal introns are important components of eukaryotic genes as their structure, sizes and contents reflect the architecture of gene and genomes. Intron size, determined by both neutral evolution, repetitive elements activities and potential functional constraints, varies significantly in eukaryotes, suggesting unique dynamics and evolution in different lineages of eukaryotic organisms. However, the evolution of intron size, is rarely studied. To investigate intron size dynamics in flowering plants, in particular domesticated grapevines, a survey of intron size and content in wine grape (Vitis vinifera Pinot Noir) genes was conducted by assembling and mapping the transcriptome of V. vinifera genes from ESTs to characterize and analyze spliceosomal introns.
Uncommonly large size of spliceosomal intron was observed in V. vinifera genome, otherwise inconsistent with overall genome size dynamics when comparing Arabidopsis, Populus and Vitis. In domesticated grapevine, intron size is generally not related to gene function. The composition of enlarged introns in grapevines indicated extensive transposable element (TE) activity within intronic regions. TEs comprise about 80% of the expanded intron space and in particular, recent LTR retrotransposon insertions are enriched in these intronic regions, suggesting an intron size expansion in the lineage leading to domesticated grapevine, instead of size contractions in Arabidopsis and Populus. Comparative analysis of selected intronic regions in V. vinifera cultivars and wild grapevine species revealed that accelerated TE activity was associated with grapevine domestication, and in some cases with the development of specific cultivars.
In this study, we showed intron size expansion driven by TE activities in domesticated grapevines, likely a result of long-term vegetative propagation and intensive human care, which simultaneously promote TE proliferation and repress TE removal mechanisms such as recombination. The intron size expansion observed in domesticated grapevines provided an example of rapid plant genome evolution in response to artificial selection and propagation, and may shed light on the important genomic changes during domestication. In addition, the transcriptome approach used to gather intron size data significantly improved annotations of the V. vinifera genome.
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.
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.
Most of eukaryotic genes are interrupted by introns that need to be removed from pre-mRNAs before they can perform their function. This is done by complex machinery called spliceosome. Many eukaryotes possess two separate spliceosomal systems that process separate sets of introns. The major (U2) spliceosome removes majority of introns, while minute fraction of intron repertoire is processed by the minor (U12) spliceosome. These two populations of introns are called U2-type and U12-type, respectively. The latter fall into two subtypes based on the terminal dinucleotides. The minor spliceosomal system has been lost independently in some lineages, while in some others few U12-type introns persist. We investigated twenty insect genomes in order to better understand the evolutionary dynamics of U12-type introns. Our work confirms dramatic drop of U12-type introns in Diptera, leaving these genomes just with a handful cases. This is mostly the result of intron deletion, but in a number of dipteral cases, minor type introns were switched to a major type, as well. Insect genes that harbor U12-type introns belong to several functional categories among which proteins binding ions and nucleic acids are enriched and these few categories are also overrepresented among these genes that preserved minor type introns in Diptera.
U12-type introns; minor spliceosome; insect evolution.
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.
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.
Correct identification of all introns is necessary to discern the protein-coding potential of a eukaryotic genome. The existence of most of the spliceosomal introns predicted in the genome of Saccharomyces cerevisiae remains unsupported by molecular evidence. We tested the intron predictions for 87 introns predicted to be present in non-ribosomal protein genes, more than a third of all known or suspected introns in the yeast genome. Evidence supporting 61 of these predictions was obtained, 20 predicted intron sequences were not spliced and six predictions identified an intron-containing region but failed to specify the correct splice sites, yielding a successful prediction rate of <80%. Alternative splicing has not been previously described for this organism, and we identified two genes (YKL186C/MTR2 and YML034W) which encode alternatively spliced mRNAs; YKL186C/MTR2 produces at least five different spliced mRNAs. One gene (YGR225W/SPO70) has an intron whose removal is activated during meiosis under control of the MER1 gene. We found eight new introns, suggesting that numerous introns still remain to be discovered. The results show that correct prediction of introns remains a significant barrier to understanding the structure, function and coding capacity of eukaryotic genomes, even in a supposedly simple system like yeast.
Small nucleolar (sno)RNAs are required for posttranscriptional processing and modification of ribosomal, spliceosomal and messenger RNAs. Their presence in both eukaryotes and archaea indicates that snoRNAs are evolutionarily ancient. The location of some snoRNAs within the introns of ribosomal protein genes has been suggested to belie an RNA world origin, with the exons of the earliest protein-coding genes having evolved around snoRNAs after the advent of templated protein synthesis. Alternatively, this intronic location may reflect more recent selection for coexpression of snoRNAs and ribosomal components, ensuring rRNA modification by snoRNAs during ribosome synthesis. To gain insight into the evolutionary origins of this genetic organization, we examined the antiquity of snoRNA families and the stability of their genomic location across 44 eukaryote genomes.
We report that dozens of snoRNA families are traceable to the Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor (LECA), but find only weak similarities between the oldest eukaryotic snoRNAs and archaeal snoRNA-like genes. Moreover, many of these LECA snoRNAs are located within the introns of host genes independently traceable to the LECA. Comparative genomic analyses reveal the intronic location of LECA snoRNAs is not ancestral however, suggesting the pattern we observe is the result of ongoing intragenomic mobility. Analysis of human transcriptome data indicates that the primary requirement for hosting intronic snoRNAs is a broad expression profile. Consistent with ongoing mobility across broadly-expressed genes, we report a case of recent migration of a non-LECA snoRNA from the intron of a ubiquitously expressed non-LECA host gene into the introns of two LECA genes during the evolution of primates.
Our analyses show that snoRNAs were a well-established family of RNAs at the time when eukaryotes began to diversify. While many are intronic, this association is not evolutionarily stable across the eukaryote tree; ongoing intragenomic mobility has erased signal of their ancestral gene organization, and neither introns-first nor evolved co-expression adequately explain our results. We therefore present a third model — constrained drift — whereby individual snoRNAs are intragenomically mobile and may occupy any genomic location from which expression satisfies phenotype.
snoRNA; Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor; Intron; Retrotransposition; Introns-first; Constrained drift
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.
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.
Only one spliceosomal-type intron has previously been identified in the unicellular eukaryotic parasite, Giardia lamblia (a diplomonad). This intron is only 35 nucleotides in length and is unusual in possessing a non-canonical 5' intron boundary sequence, CT, instead of GT.
We have identified a second spliceosomal-type intron in G. lamblia, in the ribosomal protein L7a gene (Rpl7a), that possesses a canonical GT 5' intron boundary sequence. A comparison of the two known Giardia intron sequences revealed extensive nucleotide identity at both the 5' and 3' intron boundaries, similar to the conserved sequence motifs recently identified at the boundaries of spliceosomal-type introns in Trichomonas vaginalis (a parabasalid). Based on these observations, we searched the partial G. lamblia genome sequence for these conserved features and identified a third spliceosomal intron, in an unassigned open reading frame. Our comprehensive analysis of the Rpl7a intron in other eukaryotic taxa demonstrates that it is evolutionarily conserved and is an ancient eukaryotic intron.
An analysis of the phylogenetic distribution and properties of the Rpl7a intron suggests its utility as a phylogenetic marker to evaluate particular eukaryotic groupings. Additionally, analysis of the G. lamblia introns has provided further insight into some of the conserved and unique features possessed by the recently identified spliceosomal introns in related organisms such as T. vaginalis and Carpediemonas membranifera.
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.
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.
spliceosomal introns; intron gains; Fusarium; Cryptococcus; population genomics
Accurate gene prediction in eukaryotes is a difficult and subtle problem. Here we point out a useful feature of expected distributions of spliceosomal intron lengths. Since introns are removed from transcripts prior to translation, intron lengths are not expected to respect coding frame, thus the number of genomic introns that are a multiple of three bases (‘3n introns’) should be similar to the number that are a multiple of three plus one bases (or plus two bases). Skewed predicted intron length distributions thus suggest systematic errors in intron prediction. For instance, a genome-wide excess of 3n introns suggests that many internal exonic sequences have been incorrectly called introns, whereas a deficit of 3n introns suggests that many 3n introns that lack stop codons have been mistaken for exonic sequence. A survey of genomic annotations for 29 diverse eukaryotic species showed that skew in intron length distributions is a common problem. We discuss several examples of skews in genome-wide intron length distributions that indicate systematic problems with gene prediction. We suggest that evaluation of length distributions of predicted introns is a fast and simple method for detecting a variety of possible systematic biases in gene prediction or even problems with genome assemblies, and discuss ways in which these insights could be incorporated into genome annotation protocols.
Spliceosomal introns in higher eukaryotes are present in a high percentage of protein coding genes and represent a high proportion of transcribed nuclear DNA. In the last fifteen years, a growing mass of data concerning functional roles carried out by such intervening sequences elevated them from a selfish burden carried over by the nucleus to important active regulatory elements. Introns mediate complex gene regulation via alternative splicing; they may act in cis as expression enhancers through IME (intron-mediated enhancement of gene expression) and in trans as negative regulators through the generation of intronic microRNA. Furthermore, some introns also contain promoter sequences for alternative transcripts. Nevertheless, such regulatory roles do not require long conserved sequences, so that introns are relatively free to evolve faster than exons: this feature makes them important tools for evolutionary studies and provides the basis for the development of DNA molecular markers for polymorphisms detection. A survey of introns functions in the plant kingdom is presented.
The presence of introns in protein-coding genes is a universal feature of eukaryotic genome organization, and the genes of multicellular eukaryotes, typically, contain multiple introns, a substantial fraction of which share position in distant taxa, such as plants and animals. Depending on the methods and data sets used, researchers have reached opposite conclusions on the causes of the high fraction of shared introns in orthologous genes from distant eukaryotes. Some studies conclude that shared intron positions reflect, almost entirely, a remarkable evolutionary conservation, whereas others attribute it to parallel gain of introns. To resolve these contradictions, it is crucial to analyze the evolution of introns by using a model that minimally relies on arbitrary assumptions.
We developed a probabilistic model of evolution that allows for variability of intron gain and loss rates over branches of the phylogenetic tree, individual genes, and individual sites. Applying this model to an extended set of conserved eukaryotic genes, we find that parallel gain, on average, accounts for only ~8% of the shared intron positions. However, the distribution of parallel gains over the phylogenetic tree of eukaryotes is highly non-uniform. There are, practically, no parallel gains in closely related lineages, whereas for distant lineages, such as animals and plants, parallel gains appear to contribute up to 20% of the shared intron positions. In accord with these findings, we estimated that ancestral introns have a high probability to be retained in extant genomes, and conversely, that a substantial fraction of extant introns have retained their positions since the early stages of eukaryotic evolution. In addition, the density of sites that are available for intron insertion is estimated to be, approximately, one in seven basepairs.
We obtained robust estimates of the contribution of parallel gain to the observed sharing of intron positions between eukaryotic species separated by different evolutionary distances. The results indicate that, although the contribution of parallel gains varies across the phylogenetic tree, the high level of intron position sharing is due, primarily, to evolutionary conservation. Accordingly, numerous introns appear to persist in the same position over hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This is compatible with recent observations of a negative correlation between the rate of intron gain and coding sequence evolution rate of a gene, suggesting that at least some of the introns are functionally relevant.
The timing of the origin of introns is of crucial importance for an understanding of early genome architecture. The Exon theory of genes proposed a role for introns in the formation of multi-exon proteins by exon shuffling and predicts the presence of conserved splice sites in ancient genes. In this study, large-scale analysis of potential conserved splice sites was performed using an intron-exon database (ExInt) derived from GenBank.
A set of conserved intron positions was found by matching identical splice sites sequences from distantly-related eukaryotic kingdoms. Most amino acid sequences with conserved introns were homologous to consensus sequences of functional domains from conserved proteins including kinases, phosphatases, small GTPases, transporters and matrix proteins. These included ancient proteins that originated before the eukaryote-prokaryote split, for instance the catalytic domain of protein phosphatase 2A where a total of eleven conserved introns were found. Using an experimental setup in which the relation between a splice site and the ancientness of its surrounding sequence could be studied, it was found that the presence of an intron was positively correlated to the ancientness of its surrounding sequence. Intron phase conservation was linked to the conservation of the gene sequence and not to the splice site sequence itself. However, no apparent differences in phase distribution were found between introns in conserved versus non-conserved sequences.
The data confirm an origin of introns deep in the eukaryotic branch and is in concordance with the presence of introns in the first functional protein modules in an 'Exon theory of genes' scenario. A model is proposed in which shuffling of primordial short exonic sequences led to the formation of the first functional protein modules, in line with hypotheses that see the formation of introns integral to the origins of genome evolution.
This article was reviewed by Scott Roy (nominated by Anthony Poole), Sandro de Souza (nominated by Manyuan Long), and Gáspár Jékely.