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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Evidence against the energetic cost hypothesis for the short introns in highly expressed genes

Yi-Fei Huang and Deng-Ke Niu*

Author Affiliations

MOE Key Laboratory for Biodiversity Science and Ecological Engineering, College of Life Sciences, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, P R China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:154  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-154

Published: 20 May 2008



In animals, the moss Physcomitrella patens and the pollen of Arabidopsis thaliana, highly expressed genes have shorter introns than weakly expressed genes. A popular explanation for this is selection for transcription efficiency, which includes two sub-hypotheses: to minimize the energetic cost or to minimize the time cost.


In an individual human, different organs may differ up to hundreds of times in cell number (for example, a liver versus a hypothalamus). Considered at the individual level, a gene specifically expressed in a large organ is actually transcribed tens or hundreds of times more than a gene with a similar expression level (a measure of mRNA abundance per cell) specifically expressed in a small organ. According to the energetic cost hypothesis, the former should have shorter introns than the latter. However, in humans and mice we have not found significant differences in intron length between large-tissue/organ-specific genes and small-tissue/organ-specific genes with similar expression levels. Qualitative estimation shows that the deleterious effect (that is, the energetic burden) of long introns in highly expressed genes is too negligible to be efficiently selected against in mammals.


The short introns in highly expressed genes should not be attributed to energy constraint. We evaluated evidence for the time cost hypothesis and other alternatives.