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Open Access Research article

Noisy splicing, more than expression regulation, explains why some exons are subject to nonsense-mediated mRNA decay

Zhenguo Zhang12, Dedong Xin1, Ping Wang12, Li Zhou12, Landian Hu1, Xiangyin Kong13* and Laurence D Hurst4*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Health Sciences, Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences (SIBS), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) & Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine (SJTUSM), Shanghai, PR China

2 Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai, PR China

3 State Key Laboratory of Medical Genomics, Ruijin Hospital, Shanghai Jiaotong University, 197 Rui Jin Road II, Shanghai, PR China

4 Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath, Bath, UK

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BMC Biology 2009, 7:23  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-7-23

Published: 14 May 2009



Nonsense-mediated decay is a mechanism that degrades mRNAs with a premature termination codon. That some exons have premature termination codons at fixation is paradoxical: why make a transcript if it is only to be destroyed? One model supposes that splicing is inherently noisy and spurious transcripts are common. The evolution of a premature termination codon in a regularly made unwanted transcript can be a means to prevent costly translation. Alternatively, nonsense-mediated decay can be regulated under certain conditions so the presence of a premature termination codon can be a means to up-regulate transcripts needed when nonsense-mediated decay is suppressed.


To resolve this issue we examined the properties of putative nonsense-mediated decay targets in humans and mice. We started with a well-annotated set of protein coding genes and found that 2 to 4% of genes are probably subject to nonsense-mediated decay, and that the premature termination codon reflects neither rare mutations nor sequencing artefacts. Several lines of evidence suggested that the noisy splicing model has considerable relevance: 1) exons that are uniquely found in nonsense-mediated decay transcripts (nonsense-mediated decay-specific exons) tend to be newly created; 2) have low-inclusion level; 3) tend not to be a multiple of three long; 4) belong to genes with multiple splice isoforms more often than expected; and 5) these genes are not obviously enriched for any functional class nor conserved as nonsense-mediated decay candidates in other species. However, nonsense-mediated decay-specific exons for which distant orthologous exons can be found tend to have been under purifying selection, consistent with the regulation model.


We conclude that for recently evolved exons the noisy splicing model is the better explanation of their properties, while for ancient exons the nonsense-mediated decay regulated gene expression is a viable explanation.