Intronic Alus Influence Alternative Splicing
Examination of the human transcriptome reveals higher levels of RNA editing than in any other organism tested to date. This is indicative of extensive double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) formation within the human transcriptome. Most of the editing sites are located in the primate-specific retrotransposed element called Alu. A large fraction of Alus are found in intronic sequences, implying extensive Alu-Alu dsRNA formation in mRNA precursors. Yet, the effect of these intronic Alus on splicing of the flanking exons is largely unknown. Here, we show that more Alus flank alternatively spliced exons than constitutively spliced ones; this is especially notable for those exons that have changed their mode of splicing from constitutive to alternative during human evolution. This implies that Alu insertions may change the mode of splicing of the flanking exons. Indeed, we demonstrate experimentally that two Alu elements that were inserted into an intron in opposite orientation undergo base-pairing, as evident by RNA editing, and affect the splicing patterns of a downstream exon, shifting it from constitutive to alternative. Our results indicate the importance of intronic Alus in influencing the splicing of flanking exons, further emphasizing the role of Alus in shaping of the human transcriptome. The human genome is crowded with over one million copies of primate-specific retrotransposed elements, termed Alu. A large fraction of Alu elements are located within intronic sequences. The human transcriptome undergoes extensive RNA editing (A-to-I), to higher levels than any other tested organism. RNA editing requires the formation of a double-stranded RNA structure in order to occur. Over 90% of the editing sites in the human transcriptome are found within Alu sequences. Thus, the high level of RNA editing is indicative of extensive secondary structure formation in mRNA precursors driven by intronic Alu-Alu base pairing. Splicing is a molecular mechanism in which introns are removed from an mRNA precursor and exons are ligated to form a mature mRNA. Here, we show that Alu insertions into introns can affect the splicing of the flanking exons. We experimentally demonstrate that two Alu elements that were inserted into the same intron in opposite orientation undergo base-pairing, and consequently shift the splicing pattern of the downstream exon from constitutive inclusion in all mature mRNA molecules to alternative skipping. This emphasizes the impact of Alu elements on the primate-specific transcriptome evolution, as such events can generate new isoforms that might acquire novel functions.