The origin of introns and their role in eukaryogenesis: a compromise solution to the introns-early versus introns-late debate?

National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20894, USA.
Biology Direct (Impact Factor: 2.72). 02/2006; 1:22. DOI: 10.1186/1745-6150-1-22
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Ever since the discovery of 'genes in pieces' and mRNA splicing in eukaryotes, origin and evolution of spliceosomal introns have been considered within the conceptual framework of the 'introns early' versus 'introns late' debate. The 'introns early' hypothesis, which is closely linked to the so-called exon theory of gene evolution, posits that protein-coding genes were interrupted by numerous introns even at the earliest stages of life's evolution and that introns played a major role in the origin of proteins by facilitating recombination of sequences coding for small protein/peptide modules. Under this scenario, the absence of spliceosomal introns in prokaryotes is considered to be a result of "genome streamlining". The 'introns late' hypothesis counters that spliceosomal introns emerged only in eukaryotes, and moreover, have been inserted into protein-coding genes continuously throughout the evolution of eukaryotes. Beyond the formal dilemma, the more substantial side of this debate has to do with possible roles of introns in the evolution of eukaryotes.
I argue that several lines of evidence now suggest a coherent solution to the introns-early versus introns-late debate, and the emerging picture of intron evolution integrates aspects of both views although, formally, there seems to be no support for the original version of introns-early. Firstly, there is growing evidence that spliceosomal introns evolved from group II self-splicing introns which are present, usually, in small numbers, in many bacteria, and probably, moved into the evolving eukaryotic genome from the alpha-proteobacterial progenitor of the mitochondria. Secondly, the concept of a primordial pool of 'virus-like' genetic elements implies that self-splicing introns are among the most ancient genetic entities. Thirdly, reconstructions of the ancestral state of eukaryotic genes suggest that the last common ancestor of extant eukaryotes had an intron-rich genome. Thus, it appears that ancestors of spliceosomal introns, indeed, have existed since the earliest stages of life's evolution, in a formal agreement with the introns-early scenario. However, there is no evidence that these ancient introns ever became widespread before the emergence of eukaryotes, hence, the central tenet of introns-early, the role of introns in early evolution of proteins, has no support. However, the demonstration that numerous introns invaded eukaryotic genes at the outset of eukaryotic evolution and that subsequent intron gain has been limited in many eukaryotic lineages implicates introns as an ancestral feature of eukaryotic genomes and refutes radical versions of introns-late. Perhaps, most importantly, I argue that the intron invasion triggered other pivotal events of eukaryogenesis, including the emergence of the spliceosome, the nucleus, the linear chromosomes, the telomerase, and the ubiquitin signaling system. This concept of eukaryogenesis, in a sense, revives some tenets of the exon hypothesis, by assigning to introns crucial roles in eukaryotic evolutionary innovation.
The scenario of the origin and evolution of introns that is best compatible with the results of comparative genomics and theoretical considerations goes as follows: self-splicing introns since the earliest stages of life's evolution--numerous spliceosomal introns invading genes of the emerging eukaryote during eukaryogenesis--subsequent lineage-specific loss and gain of introns. The intron invasion, probably, spawned by the mitochondrial endosymbiont, might have critically contributed to the emergence of the principal features of the eukaryotic cell. This scenario combines aspects of the introns-early and introns-late views.
this article was reviewed by W. Ford Doolittle, James Darnell (nominated by W. Ford Doolittle), William Martin, and Anthony Poole.

  • [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: We sequenced nucleosomal DNA fragments of the filamentous ascomycetes Aspergillus nidulans and A. oryzae and then mapped those sequences on their genomes. We compared the GC content and nucleosome density in the exonic and intronic regions in the genes of A. nidulans and A. oryzae. Although the GC content and nucleosome density in the exonic regions trended to be higher than those in the intronic regions, the difference in the distribution of the GC content was more notable than that of the nucleosome density. Next, we compared the GC content and nucleosome density in the exonic regions of 9,616 orthologous gene pairs. In both Aspergillus species, the GC content did not correlate with the nucleosome density. In addition, the Spearman's rank correlation coefficient (ρ = 0.51) between the GC content of the exonic regions of the 9,616 orthologous gene pairs was higher than that (ρ = 0.31) of the nucleosome densities of A. nidulans and A. oryzae. These results strongly suggest that the GC content in the exons of the orthologous gene pairs has been conserved during evolution but the nucleosome density has varied throughout.
    Gene 05/2013; · 2.20 Impact Factor
  • [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: Viruses and/or virus-like selfish elements are associated with all cellular life forms and are the most abundant biological entities on Earth, with the number of virus particles in many environments exceeding the number of cells by one to two orders of magnitude. The genetic diversity of viruses is commensurately enormous and might substantially exceed the diversity of cellular organisms. Unlike cellular organisms with their uniform replication-expression scheme, viruses possess either RNA or DNA genomes and exploit all conceivable replication-expression strategies. Although viruses extensively exchange genes with their hosts, there exists a set of viral hallmark genes that are shared by extremely diverse groups of viruses to the exclusion of cellular life forms. Coevolution of viruses and host defense systems is a key aspect in the evolution of both viruses and cells, and viral genes are often recruited for cellular functions. Together with the fundamental inevitability of the emergence of genomic parasites in any evolving replicator system, these multiple lines of evidence reveal the central role of viruses in the entire evolution of life.
    Current opinion in virology. 07/2013;
  • [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: Our understanding of the pervasive involvement of small RNAs in regulating diverse biological processes has been greatly augmented by recent application of deep-sequencing technologies to small RNA across diverse eukaryotes. We review the currently known small RNA classes and place them in context of the reconstructed evolutionary history of the RNA interference (RNAi) protein machinery. This synthesis indicates that the earliest versions of eukaryotic RNAi systems likely utilized small RNA processed from three types of precursors: (1) sense-antisense transcriptional products, (2) genome-encoded, imperfectly complementary hairpin sequences, and (3) larger noncoding RNA precursor sequences. Structural dissection of PIWI proteins along with recent discovery of novel families (including Med13 of the Mediator complex) suggest that emergence of a distinct architecture with the N-terminal domains (also occurring separately fused to endoDNases in prokaryotes) formed via duplication of an ancestral unit was key to their recruitment as primary RNAi effectors and use of small RNAs of certain preferred lengths. Prokaryotic PIWI proteins are typically components of several RNA-directed DNA restriction or CRISPR/Cas systems. However, eukaryotic versions appear to have emerged from a subset that evolved RNA-directed RNAi. They were recruited alongside RNaseIII domains and RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRP) domains, also from prokaryotic systems, to form the core eukaryotic RNAi system. Like certain regulatory systems, RNAi diversified into two distinct but linked arms concomitant with eukaryotic nucleocytoplasmic compartmentalization. Subsequent elaboration of RNAi proceeded via diversification of the core protein machinery through lineage-specific expansions and recruitment of new components from prokaryotes (nucleases and small RNA-modifying enzymes), allowing for diversification of associating small RNAs. For further resources related to this article, please visit the WIREs website. Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.
    WIREs RNA 12/2013; · 4.19 Impact Factor


1 Download
Available from