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Brief Bioinform. 2005 Jun;6(2):118-34.

Analysis of evolution of exon-intron structure of eukaryotic genes.

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  • 1National Center for Biotechnology Information/NLM/NIH, 8600 Rockville Pike, Bldg. 38A, Bethesda, MD 20894, USA.


The availability of multiple, complete eukaryotic genome sequences allows one to address many fundamental evolutionary questions on genome scale. One such important, long-standing problem is evolution of exon-intron structure of eukaryotic genes. Analysis of orthologous genes from completely sequenced genomes revealed numerous shared intron positions in orthologous genes from animals and plants and even between animals, plants and protists. The data on shared and lineage-specific intron positions were used as the starting point for evolutionary reconstruction with parsimony and maximum-likelihood approaches. Parsimony methods produce reconstructions with intron-rich ancestors but also infer lineage-specific, in many cases, high levels of intron loss and gain. Different probabilistic models gave opposite results, apparently depending on model parameters and assumptions, from domination of intron loss, with extremely intron-rich ancestors, to dramatic excess of gains, to the point of denying any true conservation of intron positions among deep eukaryotic lineages. Development of models with adequate, realistic parameters and assumptions seems to be crucial for obtaining more definitive estimates of intron gain and loss in different eukaryotic lineages. Many shared intron positions were detected in ancestral eukaryotic paralogues which evolved by duplication prior to the divergence of extant eukaryotic lineages. These findings indicate that numerous introns were present in eukaryotic genes already at the earliest stages of evolution of eukaryotes and are compatible with the hypothesis that the original, catastrophic intron invasion accompanied the emergence of the eukaryotic cells. Comparison of various features of old and younger introns starts shedding light on probable mechanisms of intron insertion, indicating that propagation of old introns is unlikely to be a major mechanism for origin of new ones. The existence and structure of ancestral protosplice sites were addressed by examining the context of introns inserted within codons that encode amino acids conserved in all eukaryotes and, accordingly, are not subject to selection for splicing efficiency. It was shown that introns indeed predominantly insert into or are fixed in specific protosplice sites which have the consensus sequence (A/C)AG|Gt.

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