Exon structure conservation despite low sequence similarity: a relic of dramatic events in evolution?

EMBO J. 2001 Oct 1;20(19):5354-60. doi: 10.1093/emboj/20.19.5354.


The evolutionary significance of introns remains a mystery. The current availability of several complete eukaryotic genomes permits new studies to probe the possible function of these peculiar genomic features. Here we investigate the degree to which gene structure (intron position, phase and length) is conserved between homologous protein domains. We find that for certain extracellular-signalling and nuclear domains, gene structures are similar even when protein sequence similarity is low or not significant and sequences can only be aligned with a knowledge of protein tertiary structure. In contrast, other domains, including most intracellular signalling modules, show little gene structure conservation. Intriguingly, many domains with conserved gene structures, such as cytokines, are involved in similar biological processes, such as the immune response. This suggests that gene structure conservation may be a record of key events in evolution, such as the origin of the vertebrate immune system or the duplication of nuclear receptors in nematodes. The results suggest ways to detect new and potentially very remote homologues, and to construct phylogenies for proteins with limited sequence similarity.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Cytokines / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Exons / genetics*
  • GTPase-Activating Proteins / genetics
  • Genes
  • Introns / genetics*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary


  • Cytokines
  • GTPase-Activating Proteins