Introns in a wide range of organisms including plants, animals and fungi are able to increase the expression of the gene that they are contained in. This process of intron-mediated enhancement (IME) is most thoroughly studied in Arabidopsis thaliana, where it has been shown that enhancing introns are typically located near the promoter and are compositionally distinct from downstream introns. In this study, we perform a comprehensive comparative analysis of several sequenced plant genomes. We find that enhancing sequences are conserved in the multi-cellular plants but are either absent or unrecognizable in algae. IME signals are preferentially located towards the 5′-end of first introns but also appear to be enriched in 5′-UTRs and coding regions near the transcription start site. Enhancing introns are found most prominently in genes that are highly expressed in a wide range of tissues. Through site-directed mutagenesis in A. thaliana, we show that IME signals can be inserted or removed from introns to increase or decrease gene expression. Although we do not yet know the specific mechanism of IME, the predicted signals appear to be both functional and highly conserved.
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