The role of reverse transcriptase in intron gain and loss mechanisms

Noa E. Cohen, Roy Shen, Liran Carmel*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Intron density is highly variable across eukaryotic species. It seems that different lineages have experienced considerably different levels of intron gain and loss events, but the reasons for this are not well known. A large number of mechanisms for intron loss and gain have been suggested, and most of them have at least some level of indirect support. We therefore figured out that the variability in intron density can be a reflection of the fact that different mechanisms are active in different lineages. Quite a number of these putative mechanisms, both for intron loss and for intron gain, postulate that the enzyme reverse transcriptase (RT) has a key role in the process. In this paper, we lay out three predictions whose approval or falsification gives indication for the involvement of RT in intron gain and loss processes. Testing these predictions requires data on the intron gain and loss rates of individual genes along different branches of the eukaryotic phylogenetic tree. So far, such rates could not be computed, and hence, these predictions could not be rigorously evaluated. Here, we use a maximum likelihood algorithm that we have devised in the past, Evolutionary Reconstruction by Expectation Maximization, which allows the estimation of such rates. Using this algorithm, we computed the intron loss and gain rates of more than 300 genes in each branch of the phylogenetic tree of 19 eukaryotic species. Based on that we found only little support for RT activity in intron gain. In contrast, we suggest that RT-mediated intron loss is a mechanism that is very efficient in removing introns, and thus, its levels of activity may be a major determinant of intron number. Moreover, we found that intron gain and loss rates are negatively correlated in intron-poor species but are positively correlated for intron-rich species. One explanation to this is that intron gain and loss mechanisms in intron-rich species (like metazoans) share a common mechanistic component, albeit not a RT.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)179-186
Number of pages8
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • Eukaryotic gene structure
  • Intron evolution
  • Intron gain mechanism
  • Intron gain rate
  • Intron loss mechanism
  • Intron loss rate
  • Intron positional bias
  • Reverse transcriptase


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