Background: Alternative splicing has been reported in various eukaryotic groups including plants, apicomplexans, diatoms, amoebae, animals and fungi. However, whether widespread alternative splicing has evolved independently in the different eukaryotic groups or was inherited from their last common ancestor, and may therefore predate multicellularity, is still unknown. To better understand the origin and evolution of alternative splicing and its usage in diverse organisms, we studied alternative splicing in 12 eukaryotic species, comparing rates of alternative splicing across genes of different functional classes, cellular locations, intron/exon structures and evolutionary origins.
Results: For each species, we find that genes from most functional categories are alternatively spliced. Ancient genes (shared between animals, fungi and plants) show high levels of alternative splicing. Genes with products expressed in the nucleus or plasma membrane are generally more alternatively spliced while those expressed in extracellular location show less alternative splicing. We find a clear correspondence between incidence of alternative splicing and intron number per gene both within and between genomes. In general, we find several similarities in patterns of alternative splicing across these diverse eukaryotes.
Conclusion: Along with previous studies indicating intron-rich genes with weak intron boundary consensus and complex spliceosomes in ancestral organisms, our results suggest that at least a simple form of alternative splicing may already have been present in the unicellular ancestor of plants, fungi and animals. A role for alternative splicing in the evolution of multicellularity then would largely have arisen by co-opting the preexisting process.