The signals that determine the specificity and efficiency of splicing are multiple and complex, and are not fully understood. Among other factors, the relative contributions of different mechanisms appear to depend on intron size inasmuch as long introns might hinder the activity of the spliceosome through interference with the proper positioning of the intron-exon junctions. Indeed, it has been shown that the information content of splice sites positively correlates with intron length in the nematode, Drosophila, and fungi. We explored the connections between the length of vertebrate introns, the strength of splice sites, exonic splicing signals, and evolution of flanking exons.
A compensatory relationship is shown to exist between different types of signals, namely, the splice sites and the exonic splicing enhancers (ESEs). In the range of relatively short introns (approximately, < 1.5 kilobases in length), the enhancement of the splicing signals for longer introns was manifest in the increased concentration of ESEs. In contrast, for longer introns, this effect was not detectable, and instead, an increase in the strength of the donor and acceptor splice sites was observed. Conceivably, accumulation of A-rich ESE motifs beyond a certain limit is incompatible with functional constraints operating at the level of protein sequence evolution, which leads to compensation in the form of evolution of the splice sites themselves toward greater strength. In addition, however, a correlation between sequence conservation in the exon ends and intron length, particularly, in synonymous positions, was observed throughout the entire length range of introns. Thus, splicing signals other than the currently defined ESEs, i.e., potential new classes of ESEs, might exist in exon sequences, particularly, those that flank long introns.
Several weak but statistically significant correlations were observed between vertebrate intron length, splice site strength, and potential exonic splicing signals. Taken together, these findings attest to a compensatory relationship between splice sites and exonic splicing signals, depending on intron length.