It was long assumed that eukaryotic precursor mRNAs (pre-mRNAs) are almost always spliced to generate a linear mRNA that is subsequently translated to produce a protein. However, it is now clear that thousands of protein-coding genes can be non-canonically spliced to produce circular noncoding RNAs, some of which are expressed at much higher levels than their associated linear mRNAs. How then does the splicing machinery decide whether to generate a linear mRNA or a circular RNA? Recent work has revealed that intronic repetitive elements, including sequences derived from transposons, are critical regulators of this decision. In most cases, circular RNA biogenesis appears to be initiated when complementary sequences from 2 different introns base pair to one another. This brings the splice sites from the intervening exon(s) into close proximity and facilitates the backsplicing event that generates the circular RNA. As many pre-mRNAs contain multiple intronic repeats, distinct circular transcripts can be produced depending on which repeats base pair to one another. Intronic repeats are thus critical regulatory sequences that control the functional output of their host genes, and potentially cause the functions of protein-coding genes to be highly divergent across species.
Keywords: ADAR; Alu; LINE1; backsplicing; base pairing; circRNA; circular RNA; noncoding RNA; pre-mRNA splicing; retrotransposition.