Assessing the impact of alternative splicing on the diversity and evolution of the proteome in plants

E.I. Severing

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Splicing is one of the key processing steps during the maturation of a gene’s primary transcript into the mRNA molecule used as a template for protein production. Splicing involves the removal of segments called introns and re-joining of the remaining segments called exons. It is by now well established that not always the same segments are removed from a gene’s primary transcript during the splicing process. The consequence of this splicing variation, termed Alternative Splicing (AS), is that multiple distinct mature mRNA molecules can be produced from a single gene.

One of the two biological roles that are ascribed to AS is that of a mechanism which enables an organism to produce multiple functionally distinct proteins from a single gene. Alternatively, AS can serve as a means for controlling gene expression at the post-transcriptional level. Although many clear examples have been reported for both roles, the extent to which AS increases the functional diversity of the proteome, regulates gene expression or simply reflects noise in splicing machinery is not well known.

Determining the full functional impact of AS by designing and performing wet-lab experiments for all AS events is unfeasible and bioinformatics approaches have therefore widely been used for studying the impact of AS at a genome-wide scale. In this thesis four bioinformatics studies are presented that were aimed at determining the extent to which AS is used in plants as a mechanism for producing multiple distinct functional proteins from a single gene. Each chapter uses a different method for analyzing specific properties of AS.

Under the premise that functional genetic features are more likely to be conserved than non-functional ones, AS events that are present in two or more species are more likely to be biologically relevant than those that are confined to a single species. In chapter 2 we analyzed the conservation of AS by performing a comparative analysis between three divergent plant species. The results of that study indicated that the vast majority of AS events does not persist over long periods of evolution. We concluded, based on this lack of conservation, that AS only has a limited impact on the functional diversity of the proteome in plants. Following this conclusion, it can hypothesized that the variation that AS induces at the transcriptome level is not likely to be manifested at the protein level. In chapter 3 we tested this hypothesis by analyzing two independent proteomics datasets. This type of data can be used to directly identify proteins present in a biological sample.  Our results indicated that the variation induced by AS at the transcriptome level is also manifested at the protein level. We concluded that either many AS events have a confined species-specific (not conserved) function or simply produce protein variants that are stable enough to escape rapid turn-over.

Another method for determining whether AS increases the functional diversity of the proteome is by determining whether protein sequence variations that are typically induced by AS are common within the plant kingdom. We found (chapter 4) that this is not the case in plants and concluded that novel functions do not frequently arise through AS. We also found that most of the AS-induced variation is lost, similarly as for redundant gene copies, within a very short evolutionary time period.

One limitation of genome-wide analyses is that these capture only the more general patterns. However, the functional impact of AS can be very different in different genes or gene-families. In order fully assess the functional impact of AS, it is therefore important to also study the process within the functional context of individual genes or gene families. In chapter 5 we demonstrated this concept by performing a detailed analysis of AS within the MADS-box gene family. We were able to provide clues as to how AS might impact the protein-protein interaction capabilities of individual MADS proteins. Some of our predictions were supported by experimental evidence. We further showed how AS can serve as an evolutionary mechanism for experimenting with novel functions (novel interactions) without the explicit loss of existing functions.

The overall conclusion, based on the performed analyses is as follows: AS primarily is a consequence of noise in the splicing machinery and results in an increased diversity of the proteome. However, only a small fraction of the proteins resulting from AS will have beneficial functions and are subsequently selected for during evolution. The large remaining fraction is, similarly as for redundant gene-copies, lost within a very short evolutionary time period after its emergence.   

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Stiekema, W., Promotor, External person
  • van Ham, Roeland, Co-promotor
Award date7 Dec 2011
Place of Publication[S.l.]
Print ISBNs9789461730961
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • plants
  • genomics
  • rna
  • alternative splicing
  • evolution


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