The initial components of ribosomes first appeared more than 3.8 billion years ago during a time when many types of RNAs were evolving. While modern ribosomes are complex molecular machines consisting of rRNAs and proteins, they were assembled during early evolution by the association and joining of small functional RNA units. Introns may have provided the means to ligate many of these pieces together. All four classes of introns (group I, group II, spliceosomal, and archaeal) are present in many rRNA gene loci over a broad phylogenetic range. A survey of rRNA intron sequences across the three major life domains suggests that some of the classes of introns may have diverged from one another within rRNA gene loci. Analyses of rRNA sequences revealed self-splicing group I and group II introns are present in ancestral regions of the SSU (small subunit) and LSU (large subunit), whereas spliceosomal and archaeal introns appeared in sections of the rRNA that evolved later. Most classes of introns increased in number for approximately 1 billion years. However, their frequencies are low in the most recently evolved regions added to the SSU and LSU rRNAs. Furthermore, many of the introns appear to have been in the same locations for billions of years, suggesting an ancient origin for these sequences. In this Perspectives paper, I reviewed and analyzed rRNA intron sequences, locations, structural characteristics, and splicing mechanisms; and suggest that rRNA gene loci may have served as evolutionary nurseries for intron formation and diversification.
Keywords: Evolution; Introns; Ribosomes; rRNA.