Background: Introns comprise a large fraction of eukaryotic genomes, yet little is known about their functional significance. Regulatory elements have been mapped to some introns, though these are believed to account for only a small fraction of genome wide intronic DNA. No consistent patterns have emerged from studies that have investigated general levels of evolutionary constraint in introns.
Results: We examine the relationship between intron length and levels of evolutionary constraint by analyzing inter-specific divergence at 225 intron fragments in Drosophila melanogaster and Drosophila simulans, sampled from a broad distribution of intron lengths. We document a strongly negative correlation between intron length and divergence. Interestingly, we also find that divergence in introns is negatively correlated with GC content. This relationship does not account for the correlation between intron length and divergence, however, and may simply reflect local variation in mutational rates or biases.
Conclusion: Short introns make up only a small fraction of total intronic DNA in the genome. Our finding that long introns evolve more slowly than average implies that, while the majority of introns in the Drosophila genome may experience little or no selective constraint, most intronic DNA in the genome is likely to be evolving under considerable constraint. Our results suggest that functional elements may be ubiquitous within longer introns and that these introns may have a more general role in regulating gene expression than previously appreciated. Our finding that GC content and divergence are negatively correlated in introns has important implications for the interpretation of the correlation between divergence and levels of codon bias observed in Drosophila.