Background: Long-established protein-coding genes may lose their coding potential during evolution ("unitary gene loss"). Members of the Poaceae family are a major food source and represent an ideal model clade for plant evolution research. However, the global pattern of unitary gene loss in Poaceae genomes as well as the evolutionary fate of lost genes are still less-investigated and remain largely elusive.
Results: Using a locally developed pipeline, we identified 129 unitary gene loss events for long-established protein-coding genes from four representative species of Poaceae, i.e. brachypodium, rice, sorghum and maize. Functional annotation suggested that the lost genes in all or most of Poaceae species are enriched for genes involved in development and response to endogenous stimulus. We also found that 44 mutated genomic loci of lost genes, which we referred as relics, were still actively transcribed, and of which 84% (37 of 44) showed significantly differential expression across different tissues. More interestingly, we found that there were totally five expressed relics may function as competitive endogenous RNA in brachypodium, rice and sorghum genome.
Conclusions: Based on comparative genomics and transcriptome data, we firstly compiled a comprehensive catalogue of unitary gene loss events in Poaceae species and characterized a statistically significant functional preference for these lost genes as well showed the potential of relics functioning as competitive endogenous RNAs in Poaceae genomes.