Selection for short introns in highly expressed genes

Nat Genet. 2002 Aug;31(4):415-8. doi: 10.1038/ng940. Epub 2002 Jul 22.


Transcription is a slow and expensive process: in eukaryotes, approximately 20 nucleotides can be transcribed per second at the expense of at least two ATP molecules per nucleotide. Thus, at least for highly expressed genes, transcription of long introns, which are particularly common in mammals, is costly. Using data on the expression of genes that encode proteins in Caenorhabditis elegans and Homo sapiens, we show that introns in highly expressed genes are substantially shorter than those in genes that are expressed at low levels. This difference is greater in humans, such that introns are, on average, 14 times shorter in highly expressed genes than in genes with low expression, whereas in C. elegans the difference in intron length is only twofold. In contrast, the density of introns in a gene does not strongly depend on the level of gene expression. Thus, natural selection appears to favor short introns in highly expressed genes to minimize the cost of transcription and other molecular processes, such as splicing.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / genetics
  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • Expressed Sequence Tags
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Genome, Human*
  • Humans
  • Introns*
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Transcription, Genetic


  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins
  • DNA Transposable Elements