In eukaryotes, protein-coding sequences are interrupted by non-coding sequences known as introns. During mRNA maturation, introns are excised by the spliceosome and the coding regions, exons, are spliced to form the mature coding region. The intron densities widely differ between eukaryotic lineages, from 6 to 7 introns per kb of coding sequence in vertebrates, some invertebrates and green plants, to only a few introns across the entire genome in many unicellular eukaryotes. Evolutionary reconstructions using maximum likelihood methods suggest intron-rich ancestors for each major group of eukaryotes. For the last common ancestor of animals, the highest intron density of all extant and extinct eukaryotes was inferred, at 120–130% of the human intron density. Furthermore, an intron density within 53–74% of the human values was inferred for the last eukaryotic common ancestor. Accordingly, evolution of eukaryotic genes in all lines of descent involved primarily intron loss, with substantial gain only at the bases of several branches including plants and animals. These conclusions have substantial biological implications indicating that the common ancestor of all modern eukaryotes was a complex organism with a gene architecture resembling those in multicellular organisms. Alternative splicing most likely initially appeared as an inevitable result of splicing errors and only later was employed to generate structural and functional diversification of proteins. WIREs RNA 2013, 4:93–105. doi: 10.1002/wrna.1143
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