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

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 MRP1 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 MRP exon clusters of the annelid, Capitella teleta, and chordate, Branchiostoma belcheri, 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.