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BMC Evol Biol. 2016 Aug 22;16(1):165. doi: 10.1186/s12862-016-0740-y.

First insights into the nature and evolution of antisense transcription in nematodes.

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Department for Evolutionary Biology, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Spemannstr. 35, Tübingen, 72076, Germany.
Department for Evolutionary Biology, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Spemannstr. 35, Tübingen, 72076, Germany.
Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen, Germany.



The development of multicellular organisms is coordinated by various gene regulatory mechanisms that ensure correct spatio-temporal patterns of gene expression. Recently, the role of antisense transcription in gene regulation has moved into focus of research. To characterize genome-wide patterns of antisense transcription and to study their evolutionary conservation, we sequenced a strand-specific RNA-seq library of the nematode Pristionchus pacificus.


We identified 1112 antisense configurations of which the largest group represents 465 antisense transcripts (ASTs) that are fully embedded in introns of their host genes. We find that most ASTs show homology to protein-coding genes and are overrepresented in proteomic data. Together with the finding, that expression levels of ASTs and host genes are uncorrelated, this indicates that most ASTs in P. pacificus do not represent non-coding RNAs and do not exhibit regulatory functions on their host genes. We studied the evolution of antisense gene pairs across 20 nematode genomes, showing that the majority of pairs is lineage-specific and even the highly conserved vps-4, ddx-27, and sel-2 loci show abundant structural changes including duplications, deletions, intron gains and loss of antisense transcription. In contrast, host genes in general, are remarkably conserved and encode exceptionally long introns leading to unusually large blocks of conserved synteny.


Our study has shown that in P. pacificus antisense transcription as such does not define non-coding RNAs but is rather a feature of highly conserved genes with long introns. We hypothesize that the presence of regulatory elements imposes evolutionary constraint on the intron length, but simultaneously, their large size makes them a likely target for translocation of genomic elements including protein-coding genes that eventually end up as ASTs.


Conserved synteny; Long introns; Non-coding RNA; Orthology; Regulatory element; Strand-specific

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