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Mol Biol Evol. 2009 Sep;26(9):2147-56. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msp125. Epub 2009 Jun 24.

Evolutionary origin and functions of retrogene introns.

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Center for Integrative Genomics, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland.


Retroposed genes (retrogenes) originate via the reverse transcription of mature messenger RNAs from parental source genes and are therefore usually devoid of introns. Here, we characterize a particular set of mammalian retrogenes that acquired introns upon their emergence and thus represent rare cases of intron gain in mammals. We find that although a few retrogenes evolved introns in their coding or 3' untranslated regions (untranslated region, UTR), most introns originated together with untranslated exons in the 5' flanking regions of the retrogene insertion site. They emerged either de novo or through fusions with 5' UTR exons of host genes into which the retrogenes inserted. Generally, retrogenes with introns display high transcription levels and show broader spatial expression patterns than other retrogenes. Our experimental expression analyses of individual intron-containing retrogenes show that 5' UTR introns may indeed promote higher expression levels, at least in part through encoded regulatory elements. By contrast, 3' UTR introns may lead to downregulation of expression levels via nonsense-mediated decay mechanisms. Notably, the majority of retrogenes with introns in their 5' flanks depend on distant, sometimes bidirectional CpG dinucleotide-enriched promoters for their expression that may be recruited from other genes in the genomic vicinity. We thus propose a scenario where the acquisition of new 5' exon-intron structures was directly linked to the recruitment of distant promoters by these retrogenes, a process potentially facilitated by the presence of proto-splice sites in the genomic vicinity of retrogene insertion sites. Thus, the primary role and selective benefit of new 5' introns (and UTR exons) was probably initially to span the often substantial distances to potent CpG promoters driving retrogene transcription. Later in evolution, these introns then obtained additional regulatory roles in fine tuning retrogene expression levels. Our study provides novel insights regarding mechanisms underlying the origin of new introns, the evolutionary relevance of intron gain, and the origin of new gene promoters.

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