Background: Discontinuous genes have been observed in bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotic nuclei, mitochondria and chloroplasts. Gene discontinuity occurs in multiple forms: the two most frequent forms result from introns that are spliced out of the RNA and the resulting exons are spliced together to form a single transcript, and fragmented gene transcripts that are not covalently attached post-transcriptionally. Within the past few years, fragmented ribosomal RNA (rRNA) genes have been discovered in bilateral metazoan mitochondria, all within a group of related oysters.
Results: In this study, we have characterized this fragmentation with comparative analysis and experimentation. We present secondary structures, modeled using comparative sequence analysis of the discontinuous mitochondrial large subunit rRNA genes of the cupped oysters C. virginica, C. gigas, and C. hongkongensis. Comparative structure models for the large subunit rRNA in each of the three oyster species are generally similar to those for other bilateral metazoans. We also used RT-PCR and analyzed ESTs to determine if the two fragmented LSU rRNAs are spliced together. The two segments are transcribed separately, and not spliced together although they still form functional rRNAs and ribosomes.
Conclusions: Although many examples of discontinuous ribosomal genes have been documented in bacteria and archaea, as well as the nuclei, chloroplasts, and mitochondria of eukaryotes, oysters are some of the first characterized examples of fragmented bilateral animal mitochondrial rRNA genes. The secondary structures of the oyster LSU rRNA fragments have been predicted on the basis of previous comparative metazoan mitochondrial LSU rRNA structure models.