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Background: During alternative splicing, the inclusion of an exon in the final mRNA molecule is determined by nuclear proteins that bind cis-regulatory sequences in a target pre-mRNA molecule. A recent study suggested that the regulatory codes of individual RNA-binding proteins may be nearly immutable between very diverse species such as mammals and insects. The model system Drosophila melanogaster therefore presents an excellent opportunity for the study of alternative splicing due to the availability of quality EST annotations in FlyBase.

Methods: In this paper, we describe an in silico analysis pipeline to extract putative exonic splicing regulatory sequences from a multiple alignment of 15 species of insects. Our method, ESTs-to-ESRs (E2E), uses graph analysis of EST splicing graphs to identify mutually exclusive (ME) exons and combines phylogenetic measures, a sliding window approach along the multiple alignment and the Welch’s t statistic to extract conserved ESR motifs.

Results: The most frequent 100% conserved word of length 5 bp in different insect exons was “ATGGA”. We identified 799 statistically significant “spike” hexamers, 218 motifs with either a left or right FDR corrected spike magnitude p-value < 0.05 and 83 with both left and right uncorrected p < 0.01. 11 genes were identified with highly significant motifs in one ME exon but not in the other, suggesting regulation of ME exon splicing through these highly conserved hexamers. The majority of these genes have been shown to have regulated spatiotemporal expression. 10 elements were found to match three mammalian splicing regulator databases. A putative ESR motif, GATGCAG, was identified in the ME-13b but not in the ME-13a of Drosophila N-Cadherin, a gene that has been shown to have a distinct spatiotemporal expression pattern of spliced isoforms in a recent study.

Conclusions: Analysis of phylogenetic relationships and variability of sequence conservation as implemented in the E2E spikes method may lead to improved identification of ESRs. We found that approximately half of the putative ESRs in common between insects and mammals have a high statistical support (p < 0.01). Several Drosophila genes with spatiotemporal expression patterns were identified to contain putative ESRs located in one exon of the ME exon pairs but not in the other.


Originally published in BMC Genomics.

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