Evolutionary constraint in flanking regions of avian genes

Axel Künstner, Benoit Nabholz, Hans Ellegren*

*Corresponding author for this work
4 Citations (Scopus)


An important comprehension from comparative genomic analysis is that sequence conservation beyond neutral expectations is frequently found outside protein-coding regions, indicating important functional roles of noncoding DNA. Understanding the causes of constraint on noncoding sequence evolution forms an important area of research, not least in light of the importance for understanding the evolution of gene expression. We aligned all orthologous genes of chicken and zebra finch together with 5 kb of their upstream and downstream noncoding sequences, to study the evolution of gene flanking sequences in the avian genome. Using ancestral repeats as a neutral reference, we detected significant evolutionary constraint in the 3′ flanking region, highest directly after termination (60%) and then gradually decreasing to about 20% 5 kb downstream. Constraint was higher in annotated 3′ untranslated regions (UTRs) than in non-UTRs at the same distance from the stop codon and higher in sequences annotated as microRNA (miRNA)-binding sites than in non-miRNA-binding sites within 3′ UTRs. Constraint was also higher when estimated for a smaller data set of genes from more closely related songbird species, indicating turnover of functional elements during avian evolution. On the 5′ flanking side constraint was readily seen within the first 125 bp immediately upstream of the start codon (34%) and was about 10% for remaining sequence within 5 kb upstream. Analysis of chicken polymorphism data gave further support for the highest constraint directly before and after the translated region. Finally, we found that genes evolving under the highest constraint measured by dN/dS also had the highest level of constraint in the 3′ flanking region. This study broadens the insights into gene flanking sequence evolution by adding new findings from a vertebrate lineage other than mammals.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number9
Pages (from-to)2481-2489
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 09.2011

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Infection and Inflammation Research (ZIEL)


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