- Research article
- Open Access
Transfer of rice mitochondrial ribosomal protein L6 gene to the nucleus: acquisition of the 5'-untranslated region via a transposable element
© Kubo et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2008
Received: 26 July 2008
Accepted: 14 November 2008
Published: 14 November 2008
The mitochondria of contemporary organisms contain fewer genes than the ancestral bacteria are predicted to have contained. Because most of the mitochondrial proteins are encoded in the nucleus, the genes would have been transferred from the mitochondrion to the nucleus at some stage of evolution and they must have acquired cis-regulatory elements compatible with eukaryotic gene expression. However, most of such processes remain unknown.
The ribosomal protein L6 gene (rpl6) has been lost in presently-known angiosperm mitochondrial genomes. We found that each of the two rice rpl6 genes (OsRpl6-1 and OsRpl6-2) has an intron in an identical position within the 5'-untranslated region (UTR), which suggests a duplication of the rpl6 gene after its transfer to the nucleus. Each of the predicted RPL6 proteins lacks an N-terminal extension as a mitochondrial targeting signal. Transient assays using green fluorescent protein indicated that their mature N-terminal coding regions contain the mitochondrial targeting information. Reverse transcription-PCR analysis showed that OsRpl6-2 expresses considerably fewer transcripts than OsRpl6-1. This might be the result of differences in promoter regions because the 5'-noncoding regions of the two rpl6 genes differ at a point close to the center of the intron. There are several sequences homologous to the region around the 5'-UTR of OsRpl6-1 in the rice genome. These sequences have characteristics similar to those of the transposable elements (TE) belonging to the PIF/Harbinger superfamily.
The above evidences suggest a novel mechanism in which the 5'-UTR of the transferred mitochondrial gene was acquired via a TE. Since the 5'-UTRs and introns within the 5'-UTRs often contain transcriptional and posttranscriptional cis-elements, the transferred rice mitochondrial rpl6 gene may have acquired its cis-element from a TE.
Mitochondria are thought to be descendants of endosymbiotic bacteria that entered into the host cell . The mitochondria of contemporary organisms contain considerably fewer genes than the ancestral bacteria are predicted to have contained. Thousand or more mitochondrial proteins are predicted to be encoded in the nucleus [2, 3]. Such the nucleus-encoded genes are transcribed from eukaryotic promoters, followed by translation into proteins by cytosolic ribosomes. In many cases, the proteins are synthesized as precursors having N-terminal extensions (presequences), which act as mitochondrial targeting signals. Most of these genes would have been transferred from the mitochondrion to the nucleus at some stage of evolution although some genes may have been recruited from other sources . The transferred mitochondrial genes must have acquired cis-regulatory elements compatible with eukaryotic gene expression (e.g., promoters, enhancers, poly (A) signals and sequences for mitochondrial targeting signals) because mitochondrial gene expression is mainly prokaryotic. However, most of the processes for the gene activation remain unknown.
Mitochondrial gene content is highly variable depending on the taxa studied. The mammalian mitochondrial genome is conserved and constant all over the groups, whereas within Tracheophyta (higher plants), the genomes exhibit differential gene losses, indicating that gene transfer to the nucleus is an ongoing process during the evolution of Magnoliophyta (angiosperms) . Typical such cases are the ribosomal protein genes, showing more frequent gene-loss than other types of mitochondrial gene in many angiosperm species. For example, a sequence homologous to the ribosomal protein L6 gene (rpl6) is absent from all known angiosperm mitochondrial genomes [6–8], whereas the corresponding sequence is encoded in the mitochondrial genomes of lower plants . The sequences of the nucleus-encoded rpl6 gene have recently been identified in the complete Arabidopsis nuclear genome [6, 8] and the draft rice nuclear genome . However, detailed analysis has not yet been performed. We previously reported the loss or dysfunction of several ribosomal protein genes in the complete rice mitochondrial genome . We have also isolated several genes that had been transferred from the mitochondrion to the nucleus in rice [11–14]. Previous studies, including ours, have revealed frequencies of gene transfer events, the origins of sequence elements, and a few possible mechanisms involved . For examples, the rps10 gene has undergone numerous independent gene transfer events during recent angiosperm evolution . Presequences for rice rps11-1, Arabidopsis sdh3 and carrot rps10 genes seem to have been copied from those for the atp2, hsp70 and hsp22 genes, respectively [11, 15, 16]. Common use of a presequence in different proteins via alternative splicing has also been found in maize and rice [12, 17]. Chromosomal recombinations would have been involved in the gain of a promoter for rice rpl27 gene . Genes are sometimes divided into pieces or functionally replaced: a coding region of rpl2 gene has been divided into 5'- and 3'-parts in dicots, either or both of which have been transferred to the nucleus in some species ; mitochondrial rps13 and rps8 genes have been replaced by duplicated copies of chloroplast (rps13) and cytosolic counterparts (rps15A), respectively . However, despite these examples, it is mostly unclear how the sequence elements compatible with eukaryotic expression were successfully moved and then joined with the transferred mitochondrial genes.
In this study, we identified and characterized the rice rpl6 gene. The release of the complete nuclear sequence of rice  and its fine genome annotation  enabled us to survey the genes and their genomic environment in detail. Based on this information, two copies of rice rpl6 gene (OsRpl6-1 and OsRpl6-2) were identified in the rice genome. Sequence comparison of the two rpl6 genes strongly suggests a duplication of the rpl6 gene via genomic DNA rather than two separate gene transfer events. Although the sequences of the two rpl6 copies are homologous within the coding regions and have similar mitochondrial targeting properties, OsRpl6-1 was expressed to a greater extent than OsRpl6-2. A region around the 5'-untranslated region (UTR) of OsRpl6-1 is conserved in several other rice sequences. Interestingly, this conserved region has characteristics similar to those of class II transposable elements (TEs). It is well established that numerous TEs are present in eukaryotic nuclear genomes and that some of them affect genomic rearrangement and gene expression via translocation . The TE within OsRpl6-1 would have been involved in the acquisition of the 5'-UTR, which may be responsible for the difference in the amount of transcripts produced by the two rpl6 genes. The significance of TEs for the activation of transferred mitochondrial sequence and the evolution of such processes are discussed.
Identification of two copies of the mitochondrial rpl6 gene in the rice genome
Mitochondrial targeting of OsRpl6 gene products
Differential expression of rice rpl6 genes
The 5'-UTR of OsRpl6-1 is homologous to various rice sequences
Conserved regions have characteristics of a transposable element (TE)
The upstream (Fig. 4) and downstream (Fig. 5) conserved segments are presently annotated in the database as members of two separate nonautonomous TEs, MERMITE18F and ECSR , respectively, but they have not been characterized in detail. Sequence alignment and analysis of the two conserved segments revealed the following. (1) The segments have a common terminal inverted repeat (TIR) composed of a 15-bp consensus sequence, GGCCTTGTTCGGTTG (Figs. 4 and 5, thick yellow arrows). (2) A potential 3-bp direct repeat occurs just outside of the TIR (Figs. 4 and 5, small green arrows). Although not all direct repeats were perfectly conserved between the ends of the sequences, they could represent target-site duplications (TSDs), which are generally caused by TE insertions. (3) A database search using the sequences flanking the conserved segments detected two putative related-to-empty-sites (RESites). The RESites are sequences that are homologous to TE-bearing sequences but lack the TE insertion, which indicates the past movement of TEs and their TSD sequences . In one instance, the sequence flanking Chr 2b was nearly identical to that of its RESite (Fig. S1A in Additional file 1). In the second instance, high homology was evident between Chr 9c and its RESite, although a few indels were observed (Fig. S1B in Additional file 1). These results strongly suggest that the two conserved segments were moved as a single TE because the insertion of two such segments in such close proximity and in the same direction by two separate events is highly unlikely.
Classification of TEs associated with the 5'-UTR of OsRpl6-1 as a member of the PIF/Harbinger superfamily
Among the putative TEs re-characterized in this study, proteins predicted from the internal regions of Chrs 2c, 5c and 9b had 78%–88% similarity to a transposase from Os-PIF1 (data not shown). The Os-PIF1 is a rice homologue of maize P instability factor alpha (PIFa), an active class II DNA transposon . The PIF family has recently been associated with the nonautonomous miniature inverted transposable element (MITE), Tourist . In fact, the consensus TIR sequence of the putative TEs observed in our study (GGCCTTGTTCGGTTG) (Figs. 4 and 5) was similar to that of Tourist-like MITEs in maize, barley and Sorghum [27, 28] and OsPIF families . These results indicate that the conserved sequence segments associated with the 5'-UTR of OsRpl6-1 are a single TE belonging to the PIF/Harbinger superfamily. Of these TEs, Chr 2c seems to encode an entire transposase, whereas Chr 5c and 9b may be pseudogenes because of lacking the complete coding region for transposase. The others, including one within OsRpl6-1, are probably nonautonomous elements because they did not contain ORFs nor did their predicted proteins have significant homologies to any characterized proteins in the given direction (data not shown).
1. Gene transfer of rpl6 from the mitochondrion to the nucleus
It has been proposed that a mitochondrially encoded rpl6 gene had been transferred to the nucleus prior to the emergence of angiosperms [7, 8]. We assume that the transfer already occurred in the common ancestor of seed plants (Fig. 6, step 1) because the rpl6 gene is absent from the mitochondrial genome of a gymnosperm, Cycas taitungensis . In addition, rpl6 cDNAs are found from gymnosperms Cryptomeria japonica, Cycas rumphii, Pinus pinaster, Pseudotsuga menziesii and Zamia vazquezii in the database [their representative accession nos. are BY896644, CB092074, BX248809, CN638760 and FD772805, respectively], although the presence of rpl6 cDNAs does not readily indicate the nuclear localization of genes. This situation differs from the evolution of other ribosomal protein genes, which underwent recent gene transfer events during the course of angiosperm evolution (e.g., rps10 gene) .
2. Gain of a mitochondrial targeting sequence and an intron
Since neither of the proteins predicted from the two rice rpl6 genes contained an apparent N-terminal extension for a presequence, the targeting signal seems to have been derived from sequence alterations within the mature N-terminal coding region (Fig. 6, step 2), as with the case of rice rps10 . The presence of an embedded targeting signal here was indicated by the results of GFP assays (Fig. 2). During the GFP analysis, small aggregations were occasionally observed (data not shown). We speculate that the efficiency of mitochondrial targeting varies according to cellular or physiological conditions. Incomplete or slow protein targeting has been observed in the sweet potato ATPase δ-subunit with an atypical mitochondrial targeting signal . At any rate, the acquisition of the targeting signal would have occurred prior to the duplication event because both rice RPL6 proteins have similar mitochondrial targeting abilities. This step may predate the common ancestor of seed plants because seed plants RPL6 proteins seem to lack a presequence as described. The 3'-part of an intron would also have been acquired during this step, based on the fact that both of the OsRpl6-1 and OsRpl6-2 sequences share a similarity in the 3'-terminal region of the intron (Fig. 1, shaded region).
3. Duplication of the nuclear rpl6 gene
The rpl6 gene would have been duplicated via genomic DNA, resulting in two rpl6 copies (OsRpl6-1 and OsRpl6-2) on different chromosomes (Fig. 6, step 3). Although we did not conduct Southern blot analysis to determine their copy numbers, the presence of the two rpl6 copies in the rice nucleus is probable because of the accuracy of rice genome sequence data  and similarity to numerous rpl6 cDNA sequences in the database (data not shown). The duplication event seems to have occurred after the split of the genus Oryza from the other monocots, followed by the occurrence of japonica and indica subspecies, because cDNA sequences corresponding to OsRpl6-1 and OsRpl6-2 are also present in the indica cultivar [their representative GenBank accession nos. are CX108080 and CT862828, respectively] but not in other monocots (data not shown). This assumption is supported by a maximum likelihood (ML) tree based on the 59 nonredundant rpl6 cDNAs from 24 angiosperm genera (data not shown). This ML tree also suggests relatively recent duplications in Glycine, Hordeum, Ipomoea, Petunia and Triticum. Therefore, it is likely that multiple duplication events occurred during angiosperm evolution.
4. Acquisition of the 5'-UTR of OsRpl6-1 via a TE
Despite their coding similarity, transcripts of OsRpl6-2 were much less abundant than those of OsRpl6-1 (Fig. 3). The difference in the quantity of transcripts produced by the rpl6 genes might be caused by differences in promoter regions because their 5'-noncoding regions differ from a point near the center of the intron (Fig. 1A). The most striking findings of this study were that numerous sequences homologous to the region around the 5'-UTR of OsRpl6-1 were detected in the rice genome and that they presumably belong to a TE family. One can raise a question why numerous putative introns linked to the TEs are spread in the rice genome. One speculation could be that a TE was selected as part of the intron of a cellular gene because it contained a functional element such as a promoter or an enhancer, followed by amplification in the rice genome via transpositions. Alternatively, a TE might have selfishly been spread in the rice genome after capture of the 5'-part of intron from an unknown gene source. The evolutionary relationships of these TEs are unclear because the presence of a number of indels in the sequence alignment (Figs. 4 and 5) precludes fine phylogenetic analysis. These TEs might have been transposed at a relatively early evolutionary stage because most of their RESites are missing. This assumption does not contradict the notion of ancient transfer of the rpl6 gene to the nucleus [7, 8]. However, the TE within OsRpl6-1 should have been integrated after the duplication event of the rice rpl6 gene (Fig. 6, step 4) because the OsRpl6-2 and Arabidopsis rpl6 genes lack such a sequence. The origin and mode of acquisition of the OsRpl6-2 5'-UTR is unknown. There is a Mutator-like element (MULE) within the 5'-nontranscribed spacer region of OsRpl6-1 (Figs. 1B and 4, open triangle). This element seems to have been acquired posteriorly. Such nested TE insertions are characteristic of many kinds of TEs. We infer that this MULE has a minor effect on the expression of OsRpl6-1 because it is not conserved among the contemporary transcribed TEs (Fig. 4, asterisks in sequence names). Alternatively, the MULE might act as an enhancer.
The 5'-UTR and intron within the 5'-UTR are generally thought to contain cis-elements that regulate expression at transcriptional and posttranscriptional levels: the former involves promoter and enhancer activities and the latter confers translational efficiency and mRNA stability [33, 34]. The evolutionary origins of noncoding regions (e.g., 5'- and 3'-UTRs, promoters and introns) are mostly unknown, as are those of nucleus-encoded mitochondrial genes. Recently, topoisomerase I-mediated homologous recombination has been proposed as a mechanism by which the 5'-UTR was acquired in rice rpl27 . In the present report, we describe a novel mechanism for the acquisition of a 5'-UTR via a TE. TEs sometimes transpose in the vicinity of host genes, generating new coding regions and changing gene expression . Among the TEs, MITEs may be sources of cis-acting regulatory elements because of their specific properties. First, MITEs are much more prevalent than other types of TEs in plant genomes. Second, they preferentially insert into genic regions. Finally, MITEs might contain cis-acting elements. Although most of such putative elements have not been demonstrated experimentally, a MITE family that had provided a poly (A) signal has been reported . In addition, it is noteworthy that insertions of a member of the MITE family, mPing, may have caused the up- and down-regulation of adjacent genes in rice . We have not determined which cis-acting element causes differences in the amount of transcripts between the two rice rpl6 genes (Fig. 3A). However, many reports have already established that the 5'-UTR and intron within the 5'-UTR have promoter and enhancer activity. As an alternative hypothesis, it is also possible to assume that the rice rpl6 gene gained basal transcriptional machinery prior to the gene duplication event (Fig. 6, step 2) because both of the rice rpl6 copies are transcribed. In this case, the TE within OsRpl6-1 might act as an enhancer.
Despite some functional ambiguity, judging from the lines of evidence presented here, our results constitute a plausible explanation for the origin and acquisition of the 5'-noncoding region. The generality of the acquisition of a 5'-UTR via a TE is unclear because of the paucity of genomic information on rpl6 genes in other monocots and because many TEs are often poorly conserved except for TIRs and TSDs. In fact, we examined the structure of the TEs that retain the entire TIR and are transcribed (Chrs 2a, 2b, 7a, 8b, 9a, 9c and 10), but failed to find any analogous case of OsRpl6-1. Their transcripts ended within a region between the TIR (data not shown) and no association with any other proximal genes was predicted. Therefore, to our knowledge, the OsRpl6-1 is presently the only example. Additional genomic data on other plant species and further systematic searches may reveal analogous cases of other transferred mitochondrial genes.
We have demonstrated the evolutionary origin and acquisition mechanism of the 5'-UTR of a transferred mitochondrial gene. We conclude that the 5'-UTR of the transferred rpl6 gene was acquired via a TE. Since the 5'-UTR and intron within the 5'-UTR generally contain transcriptional and posttranscriptional cis-elements, TEs may have constituted sources of cis-elements for the transferred mitochondrial genes.
Database search and nucleotide sequence analyses
Sequences homologous to the rice rpl6 gene were sought using the BLAST algorism in the National Center for Biotechnology Information http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ and the RAP-DB Build 4 http://rapdb.dna.affrc.go.jp/ databases and a rice rpl6 cDNA [GenBank accession no. AU184578] as the initial query. No sequence filtering was set. The intron position of each rpl6 gene was determined by comparison between the cDNA sequence [accession nos.: AK119694 and CI260120] and the corresponding genomic sequence [locus tags: Os03g0725000 and Os08g0484301]. RESites were detected using flanking sequences immediately outside of the putative TEs as queries in BLAST searches, as described previously .
Construction and visualization of GFP fusion proteins
Primers used in this study.
Total RNA was isolated from mature leaves, leaf sheaths and roots of three-month-old rice plants (Oryza sativa subsp. japonica cv. Nipponbare) using an RNeasy Plant Mini Kit (Qiagen, Valencia, CA, USA). One microgram of total RNA was treated with RNase-free DNase I (Roche Diagnostics, Basel, Switzerland). First-strand cDNAs were synthesized using oligo (dT)18 primers and the Advantage RT-for-PCR Kit (Takara Bio, Otsu, Japan). It was difficult to design primers specific for each OsRpl6 gene because of a GC-rich sequence in the 5'-region and an interspersed repeat sequence in the 3'-UTR (data not shown). Therefore, OsRpl6-1 and OsRpl6-2 cDNAs were amplified using a common primer pair, P7/P8 (Fig. 1; Table 1). After 27 and 30 cycles of PCR reaction, the products of each gene were digested with DraI to distinguish between them (see legend for Fig. 3). Rice Actin genes  were used as an internal control.
The authors thank Dr. Y. Niwa for providing a GFP construct, Dr. H. Hirochika and three anonymous reviewers for valuable comments, and Ms. H. Kasaoka for technical assistance. This work was partly supported by a Grant-in-Aid for Young Scientists (B) (15780215) from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan to NK.
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