Recently, we identified a large number of ultraconserved (uc) sequences in noncoding regions of human, mouse, and rat genomes that appear to be essential for vertebrate and amniote ontogeny. Here, we used similar methods to identify ultraconserved genomic regions between the insect species Drosophila melanogaster and Drosophila pseudoobscura, as well as the more distantly related Anopheles gambiae. As with vertebrates, ultraconserved sequences in insects appear to occur primarily in intergenic and intronic sequences, and at intron-exon junctions. The sequences are significantly associated with genes encoding developmental regulators and transcription factors, but are less frequent and are smaller in size than in vertebrates. The longest identical, nongapped orthologous match between the three genomes was found within the homothorax (hth) gene. This sequence spans an internal exon-intron junction, with the majority located within the intron, and is predicted to form a highly stable stem-loop RNA structure. Real-time quantitative PCR analysis of different hth splice isoforms and Northern blotting showed that the conserved element is associated with a high incidence of intron retention in hth pre-mRNA, suggesting that the conserved intronic element is critically important in the post-transcriptional regulation of hth expression in Diptera.
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