Although they do not contribute directly to the proteome, introns frequently contain regulatory elements and can extend the protein coding potential of the genome through alternative splicing. For some genes, the contribution of introns to the time required for transcription can also be functionally significant. We have previously shown that intron length in genes associated with developmental patterning is often highly conserved. In general, sets of genes that require precise coordination in the timing of their expression may be sensitive to changes in transcript length. A prediction of this hypothesis is that evolutionary changes in intron length, when they occur, may be correlated between sets of coordinately expressed genes. To test this hypothesis, we analyzed intron length coevolution in alignments from nine eutherian mammals. Overall, genes that belong to the same protein complex or that are coexpressed were significantly more likely to show evidence of intron length coevolution than matched, randomly sampled genes. Individually, protein complexes involved in the cell cycle showed the strongest evidence of coevolution of intron lengths and clusters of coexpressed genes enriched for cell cycle genes also showed significant evidence of intron length coevolution. Our results reveal a novel aspect of gene coevolution and provide a means to identify genes, protein complexes and biological processes that may be particularly sensitive to changes in transcriptional dynamics.
Keywords: coevolution; coexpression.; introns; transcription.
© The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.