Evidence for multiple independent origins of trans-splicing in Metazoa

Mol Biol Evol. 2010 Mar;27(3):684-93. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msp286. Epub 2009 Nov 25.


In contrast to conventional splicing, which joins exons from a single primary transcript, trans-splicing links stretches of RNA from separate transcripts, derived from distinct regions of the genome. Spliced leader (SL) trans-splicing is particularly well known in trypanosomes, nematodes, and flatworms, where it provides messenger RNAs with a leader sequence and cap that allow them to be translated efficiently. One of the largest puzzles regarding SL trans-splicing is its evolutionary origin. Until now SL trans-splicing has been found in a small and disparate set of organisms (including trypanosomes, dinoflagellates, cnidarians, rotifers, nematodes, flatworms, and urochordates) but not in most other eukaryotic lineages, including well-studied groups such as fungi, plants, arthropods, and vertebrates. This patchy distribution could either suggest that trans-splicing was present in early eukaryotes/metazoans and subsequently lost in multiple lineages or that it evolved several times independently. Starting from the serendipitous discovery of SL trans-splicing in an arthropod, we undertook a comprehensive survey of this process in the animal kingdom. By surveying expressed sequence tag data from more than 70 metazoan species, we show that SL trans-splicing also occurs in at least two groups of arthropods (amphipod and copepod crustaceans), in ctenophores, and in hexactinellid sponges. However, we find no evidence for SL trans-splicing in other groups of arthropods and sponges or in 15 other phyla that we have surveyed. Although the presence of SL trans-splicing in hydrozoan cnidarians, hexactinellid sponges, and ctenophores might suggest that it was present at the base of the Metazoa, the patchy distribution that is evident at higher resolution suggests that SL trans-splicing has evolved repeatedly among metazoan lineages. In agreement with this scenario, we discuss evidence that SL precursor RNAs can readily evolve from ubiquitous small nuclear RNAs that are used for conventional splicing.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arthropods / genetics
  • Base Sequence
  • Cloning, Molecular
  • Computational Biology / methods*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Expressed Sequence Tags
  • Hydrozoa / genetics
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Phylogeny*
  • Porifera / genetics
  • RNA, Small Nuclear / genetics
  • RNA, Spliced Leader*
  • Sequence Alignment
  • Trans-Splicing*


  • RNA, Small Nuclear
  • RNA, Spliced Leader