The Importance Of Introns


Correspondence between exons and protein domains.
Source: Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology (p. 347). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

Campbell Biology

Whether or not RNA splicing and the presence of introns have provided selective advantages during evolutionary history is a matter of some debate. In any case, it is informative to consider their possible adaptive benefits. Specific functions have not been identified for most introns, but at least some contain sequences that regulate gene expression, and many affect gene products.

One important consequence of the presence of introns in genes is that a single gene can encode more than one kind of polypeptide. Many genes are known to give rise to two or more different polypeptides, depending on which segments are treated as exons during RNA processing; this is called alternative RNA splicing. Results from the Human Genome Project suggest that alternative RNA splicing is one reason humans can get along with about the same number of genes as a nematode (roundworm). Because of alternative splicing, the number of different protein products an organism produces can be much greater than its number of genes.

Proteins often have a modular architecture consisting of discrete structural and functional regions called domains. One domain of an enzyme, for example, might include the active site, while another might allow the enzyme to bind to a cellular membrane. In quite a few cases, different exons code for the different domains of a protein.

The presence of introns in a gene may facilitate the evolution of new and potentially beneficial proteins as a result of a process known as exon shuffling. Introns increase the probability of crossing over between the exons of alleles of a gene—simply by providing more terrain for crossovers without interrupting coding sequences. This might result in new combinations of exons and proteins with altered structure and function. We can also imagine the occasional mixing and matching of exons between completely different (nonallelic) genes. Exon shuffling of either sort could lead to new proteins with novel combinations of functions. While most of the shuffling would result in non-beneficial changes, occasionally a beneficial variant might arise.


Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology. Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.


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