To elucidate the role of exon shuffling in shaping the complexity of the human genome/proteome, we have systematically analyzed intron phase distributions in the coding sequence of human protein domains. We found that introns at the boundaries of domains show high excess of symmetrical phase combinations (i.e., 0-0, 1-1, and 2-2), whereas nonboundary introns show no excess symmetry. This suggests that exon shuffling has primarily involved rearrangement of structural and functional domains as a whole. Furthermore, we found that domains flanked by phase I introns have dramatically expanded in the human genome due to domain shuffling and that 1-1 symmetrical domains and domain families are nonrandomly distributed with respect to their age. The predominance and extracellular location of 1-1 symmetrical domains among domains specific to metazoans suggests that they are associated with the rise of multicellularity. On the other hand, 0-0 symmetrical domains tend to be over-represented among ancient protein domains that are shared between the eukaryotic and prokaryotic kingdoms, which is compatible with the suggestion of primordial domain shuffling in the progenote. To see whether the human data reflect general genomic patterns of metazoans, similar analyses were done for the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. Although the C. elegans data generally concur with the human patterns, we identified fewer intron-bounded domains in this organism, consistent with the lower complexity of C. elegans genes.
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