Studies on the Evolution and Function of Introns in 5' Untranslated Regions

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Studies on the Evolution and Function of Introns in 5' Untranslated Regions

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Title: Studies on the Evolution and Function of Introns in 5' Untranslated Regions
Author: Cenik, Can
Citation: Cenik, Can. 2011. Studies on the Evolution and Function of Introns in 5' Untranslated Regions. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: The function and evolution of introns have been topics of great interest since introns were discovered in the 1970s. Introns that interrupt protein-coding regions have the most obvious potential to affect coding sequences; therefore, their evolution have been studied most intensively. Splicing of introns within untranslated regions does not contribute directly to the diversity of proteins, yet ~35% of human transcripts contain introns within the 5' untranslated region (UTR). The evolution and possible functions of 5'UTR introns (5UIs) remain largely unexplored. Here we undertook a genome-wide functional analysis of 5UIs. Our main results are as follows: First, the distribution of these introns in the human genome is nonrandom. While genes with regulatory roles are enriched in having 5UIs, genes encoding proteins that are targeted to the endoplasmic reticulum and mitochondria are surprisingly depleted of these introns. Second, we offered and supported a model whereby gene encoding secretory and nuclear-encoded mitochondrial proteins share a common regulatory mechanism at the level of mRNA export, which is dependent on the absence of 5'UTR introns. Specifically, the upstream element in a given transcript, be it an intron or RNA elements near the 5' end of coding sequences (CDS), dictates the mRNA export pathway used. Finally, we discovered a strong correlation between existence of 5'UTR introns and sequence features near the 5' end of CDS. We developed an integrated machine-learning framework that can predict absence of 5UIs using solely the sequence near the 5' end of CDS. Our model achieved >80% accuracy when validated against nuclear-encoded mitochondrial transcripts. Specific RNA elements predictive of 5UI absence are found in ~40% of human transcripts spanning a wide spectrum of functions. By analyzing hundreds of large-scale datasets, we functionally characterized the transcripts with these RNA elements; revealing their association with translational regulation. These RNA elements were bound by proteins interacting with the Exon Junction Complex in vivo suggesting a molecular mechanism that links these elements to their downstream effects in mRNA export and translational regulation. While some 5'UTR introns might be evolving neutrally, our results, taken together, suggest that complex evolutionary forces are acting on this distinct class of introns.
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