Evolution of the Exon-Intron Structure in Ciliate Genomes
A typical eukaryotic gene is comprised of alternating stretches of regions, exons and introns, retained in and spliced out a mature mRNA, respectively. Although the length of introns may vary substantially among organisms, a large fraction of genes contains short introns in many species. Notably, some Ciliates (Paramecium and Nyctotherus) possess only ultra-short introns, around 25 bp long. In Paramecium, ultra-short introns with length divisible by three (3n) are under strong evolutionary pressure and have a high frequency of in-frame stop codons, which, in the case of intron retention, cause premature termination of mRNA translation and consequent degradation of the mis-spliced mRNA by the nonsense-mediated decay mechanism. Here, we analyzed introns in five genera of Ciliates, Paramecium, Tetrahymena, Ichthyophthirius, Oxytricha, and Stylonychia. Introns can be classified into two length classes in Tetrahymena and Ichthyophthirius (with means 48 bp, 69 bp, and 55 bp, 64 bp, respectively), but, surprisingly, comprise three distinct length classes in Oxytricha and Stylonychia (with means 33-35 bp, 47-51 bp, and 78-80 bp). In most ranges of the intron lengths, 3n introns are underrepresented and have a high frequency of in-frame stop codons in all studied species. Introns of Paramecium, Tetrahymena, and Ichthyophthirius are preferentially located at the 5' and 3' ends of genes, whereas introns of Oxytricha and Stylonychia are strongly skewed towards the 5' end. Analysis of evolutionary conservation shows that, in each studied genome, a significant fraction of intron positions is conserved between the orthologs, but intron lengths are not correlated between the species. In summary, our study provides a detailed characterization of introns in several genera of Ciliates and highlights some of their distinctive properties, which, together, indicate that splicing spellchecking is a universal and evolutionarily conserved process in the biogenesis of short introns in various representatives of Ciliates.