Evolutionary Convergence on Highly-Conserved 3' Intron Structures in Intron-Poor Eukaryotes and Insights Into the Ancestral Eukaryotic Genome

PLoS Genet. 2008 Aug 8;4(8):e1000148. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000148.


The presence of spliceosomal introns in eukaryotes raises a range of questions about genomic evolution. Along with the fundamental mysteries of introns' initial proliferation and persistence, the evolutionary forces acting on intron sequences remain largely mysterious. Intron number varies across species from a few introns per genome to several introns per gene, and the elements of intron sequences directly implicated in splicing vary from degenerate to strict consensus motifs. We report a 50-species comparative genomic study of intron sequences across most eukaryotic groups. We find two broad and striking patterns. First, we find that some highly intron-poor lineages have undergone evolutionary convergence to strong 3' consensus intron structures. This finding holds for both branch point sequence and distance between the branch point and the 3' splice site. Interestingly, this difference appears to exist within the genomes of green alga of the genus Ostreococcus, which exhibit highly constrained intron sequences through most of the intron-poor genome, but not in one much more intron-dense genomic region. Second, we find evidence that ancestral genomes contained highly variable branch point sequences, similar to more complex modern intron-rich eukaryotic lineages. In addition, ancestral structures are likely to have included polyT tails similar to those in metazoans and plants, which we found in a variety of protist lineages. Intriguingly, intron structure evolution appears to be quite different across lineages experiencing different types of genome reduction: whereas lineages with very few introns tend towards highly regular intronic sequences, lineages with very short introns tend towards highly degenerate sequences. Together, these results attest to the complex nature of ancestral eukaryotic splicing, the qualitatively different evolutionary forces acting on intron structures across modern lineages, and the impressive evolutionary malleability of eukaryotic gene structures.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Conserved Sequence
  • Eukaryota / genetics
  • Eukaryotic Cells / classification
  • Eukaryotic Cells / physiology*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Fishes / genetics
  • Fungi / genetics
  • Genome*
  • Humans
  • Introns*
  • Phylogeny
  • Phytophthora / genetics
  • Plants / genetics
  • RNA Splice Sites
  • Spliceosomes / genetics


  • RNA Splice Sites