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Mol Biol Evol. 2003 Jun;20(6):969-78. Epub 2003 Apr 25.

High intron sequence conservation across three mammalian orders suggests functional constraints.

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  • 1Biology Department, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA. matt.hare@umail.umd.edu


Several studies have demonstrated high levels of sequence conservation in noncoding DNA compared between two species (e.g., human and mouse), and interpreted this conservation as evidence for functional constraints. If this interpretation is correct, it suggests the existence of a hidden class of abundant regulatory elements. However, much of the noncoding sequence conserved between two species may result from chance or from small-scale heterogeneity in mutation rates. Stronger inferences are expected from sequence comparisons using more than two taxa, and by testing for spatial patterns of conservation in addition to primary sequence similarity. We used a Bayesian local alignment method to compare approximately 10 kb of intron sequence from nine genes in a pairwise manner between human, whale, and seal to test whether the degree and pattern of conservation is consistent with neutral divergence. Comparison of the three sets of conserved gapless pairwise blocks revealed the following patterns: The proportion of identical intron nucleotides averaged 47% in pairwise comparisons and 28% across the three taxa. Proportions of conserved sequence were similar in unique sequence and general mammalian repetitive elements. We simulated sequence evolution under a neutral model using published estimates of substitution rate heterogeneity for noncoding DNA and found pairwise identity at 33% and three-taxon identity at 16% of nucleotide sites. Spatial patterns of primary sequence conservation were also nonrandomly distributed within introns. Overall, segments of intron sequence closer to flanking exons were significantly more conserved than interior intron sequence. This level of intron sequence conservation is above that expected by chance and strongly suggests that intron sequences are playing a larger functional role in gene regulation than previously realized.

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