On the functional significance of alternative splicing

May 29, 2009

Alternative splicing – the choice of different splice sites and/or exons in a primary transcript that possesses numerous exons and introns – is a widespread phenomenon.  With the advent of very sensitive as well as high-throughput techniques, it has proven possible to identify alternatively-spliced transcripts for many, perhaps a majority, perhaps all genes.  However, the very sensitivity of the techniques raise the interesting and important question of the functional significance of what is observed.  Thus, it is possible that much (most, all?) of the alternatively-spliced mRNA isoforms are the results of splicing errors.  (Some in the blogosphere are of the opinion that alternative splicing is mostly artifact.)  Accordingly, studies that speak to the functions of the products of alternative splicing are always of interest.

A recent study from Stephen Mount’s lab illustrates an excellent approach to this problem.  In this study, two different isoforms of a so-called SR protein (the Arabidopsis SR45 splicing factor) were studied.  These isoforms are encoded by different alternatively-spliced mRNAs, and differ by eight amino acids that correspond to one of two 3′ splice sites that are chosen in the course of pre-mRNA processing.  Loss-of-function mutant plants that do not make SR45 show a range of developmental phenotypes that affect flowers and roots.  Interestingly, when one isoform is expressed* in a loss-of-function mutant background, the flower phenotype is reversed but not the root phenotype.  Conversely, expression of the other isoform restores normal root growth but not flower morphology.  The bottom line is that the two SR45 isoforms have distinct functions.  Thus, at least in this case, alternative splicing has important roles in growth and development.

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