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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1992 Oct 15; 89(20): 9489–9493.
PMCID: PMC50157

Origins of genes: "big bang" or continuous creation?

Abstract

Many protein families are common to all cellular organisms, indicating that many genes have ancient origins. Genetic variation is mostly attributed to processes such as mutation, duplication, and rearrangement of ancient modules. Thus it is widely assumed that much of present-day genetic diversity can be traced by common ancestry to a molecular "big bang." A rarely considered alternative is that proteins may arise continuously de novo. One mechanism of generating different coding sequences is by "overprinting," in which an existing nucleotide sequence is translated de novo in a different reading frame or from noncoding open reading frames. The clearest evidence for overprinting is provided when the original gene function is retained, as in overlapping genes. Analysis of their phylogenies indicates which are the original genes and which are their informationally novel partners. We report here the phylogenetic relationships of overlapping coding sequences from steroid-related receptor genes and from tymovirus, luteovirus, and lentivirus genomes. For each pair of overlapping coding sequences, one is confined to a single lineage, whereas the other is more widespread. This suggests that the phylogenetically restricted coding sequence arose only in the progenitor of that lineage by translating an out-of-frame sequence to yield the new polypeptide. The production of novel exons by alternative splicing in thyroid receptor and lentivirus genes suggests that introns can be a valuable evolutionary source for overprinting. New genes and their products may drive major evolutionary changes.

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