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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Modeling the evolution dynamics of exon-intron structure with a general random fragmentation process

Liya Wang1 and Lincoln D Stein123

Author Affiliations

1 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724, USA

2 Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, 101 College St. Suite 800, Toronto, ON M5G0A3, Canada

3 Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto, 1 King's College Circle, Toronto, ON M5S 1A8, Canada

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:57  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-57

Published: 28 February 2013

Abstract

Background

Most eukaryotic genes are interrupted by spliceosomal introns. The evolution of exon-intron structure remains mysterious despite rapid advance in genome sequencing technique. In this work, a novel approach is taken based on the assumptions that the evolution of exon-intron structure is a stochastic process, and that the characteristics of this process can be understood by examining its historical outcome, the present-day size distribution of internal translated exons (exon). Through the combination of simulation and modeling the size distribution of exons in different species, we propose a general random fragmentation process (GRFP) to characterize the evolution dynamics of exon-intron structure. This model accurately predicts the probability that an exon will be split by a new intron and the distribution of novel insertions along the length of the exon.

Results

As the first observation from this model, we show that the chance for an exon to obtain an intron is proportional to its size to the 3rd power. We also show that such size dependence is nearly constant across gene, with the exception of the exons adjacent to the 5 UTR. As the second conclusion from the model, we show that intron insertion loci follow a normal distribution with a mean of 0.5 (center of the exon) and a standard deviation of 0.11. Finally, we show that intron insertions within a gene are independent of each other for vertebrates, but are more negatively correlated for non-vertebrate. We use simulation to demonstrate that the negative correlation might result from significant intron loss during evolution, which could be explained by selection against multi-intron genes in these organisms.

Conclusions

The GRFP model suggests that intron gain is dynamic with a higher chance for longer exons; introns are inserted into exons randomly with the highest probability at the center of the exon. GRFP estimates that there are 78 introns in every 10 kb coding sequences for vertebrate genomes, agreeing with empirical observations. GRFP also estimates that there are significant intron losses in the evolution of non-vertebrate genomes, with extreme cases of around 57% intron loss in Drosophila melanogaster, 28% in Caenorhabditis elegans, and 24% in Oryza sativa.

Keywords:
Evolution of exon-intron structure; General random fragmentation process; Simulation