Role and convergent evolution of competing RNA secondary structures in mutually exclusive splicing

<p>Exon or cassette duplication is an important means of expanding protein and functional diversity through mutually exclusive splicing. However, the mechanistic basis of this process in non-arthropod species remains poorly understood. Here, we demonstrate that <i>MRP1</i> genes underwent tandem exon duplication in Nematoda, Platyhelminthes, Annelida, Mollusca, Arthropoda, Echinodermata, and early-diverging Chordata but not in late-diverging vertebrates. Interestingly, these events were of independent origin in different phyla, suggesting convergent evolution of alternative splicing. Furthermore, we showed that multiple sets of clade-conserved RNA pairings evolved to guide species-specific mutually exclusive splicing in Arthropoda. Importantly, we also identified a similar structural code in <i>MRP</i> exon clusters of the annelid, <i>Capitella teleta</i>, and chordate, <i>Branchiostoma belcheri</i>, suggesting an evolutionarily conserved competing pairing-guided mechanism in bilaterians. Taken together, these data reveal the molecular determinants and RNA pairing-guided evolution of species-specific mutually exclusive splicing spanning more than 600 million years of bilaterian evolution. These findings have a significant impact on our understanding of the evolution of and mechanism underpinning isoform diversity and complex gene structure.</p>