Background: Alternative selection of splice sites in tandem donors and acceptors is a major mode of alternative splicing. Here, we analyzed whether in-frame tandem sites leading to subtle mRNA insertions/deletions of 3, 6, or 9 nucleotides are under natural selection.
Results: We found multiple lines of evidence that the human protein coding sequences are under selection against such in-frame tandem splice events, indicating that these events are often deleterious. The strength of selection is not homogeneous within the coding sequence as protein regions that fold into a fixed 3D structure (intrinsically ordered) are under stronger selection, especially against sites with a strong minor splice site. Investigating structures of functional protein domains, we found that tandem acceptors are preferentially located at the domain surface and outside structural elements such as helices and sheets. Using three-species comparisons, we estimate that more than half of all mutations that create NAGNAG acceptors in the coding region have been eliminated by selection.
Conclusion: We estimate that ~2,400 introns are under selection against possessing a tandem site.