Background: Despite increasing interest in the noncoding fraction of transcriptomes, the number, species-conservation and functions, if any, of many non-protein-coding transcripts remain to be discovered. Two extensive long intergenic noncoding RNA (ncRNA) transcript catalogues are now available for mouse: over 3,000 macroRNAs identified by cDNA sequencing, and 1,600 long intergenic noncoding RNA (lincRNA) intervals that are predicted from chromatin-state maps. Previously we showed that macroRNAs tend to be more highly conserved than putatively neutral sequence, although only 5% of bases are predicted as constrained. By contrast, over a thousand lincRNAs were reported as being highly conserved. This apparent difference may account for the surprisingly small fraction (11%) of transcripts that are represented in both catalogues. Here we sought to resolve the reported discrepancy between the evolutionary rates for these two sets.
Results: Our analyses reveal lincRNA and macroRNA exon sequences to be subject to the same relatively low degree of sequence constraint. Nonetheless, our observations are consistent with the functionality of a fraction of ncRNA in these sets, with up to a quarter of ncRNA exons having evolved significantly slower than neighboring neutral sequence. The more tissue-specific macroRNAs are enriched in predicted RNA secondary structures and thus may often act in trans, whereas the more highly and broadly expressed lincRNAs appear more likely to act in the cis-regulation of adjacent transcription factor genes.
Conclusions: Taken together, our results indicate that each of the two ncRNA catalogues unevenly and lightly samples the true, much larger, ncRNA repertoire of the mouse.