BACKGROUND: The somatic DNA molecules of spirotrichous ciliates are present as linear chromosomes containing mostly single-gene coding sequences with short 5' and 3' flanking regions. Only a few conserved motifs have been found in the flanking DNA. Motifs that may play roles in promoting and/or regulating transcription have not been consistently detected. Moreover, comparing subtelomeric regions of 1,356 end-sequenced somatic chromosomes failed to identify more putatively conserved motifs. RESULTS: We sequenced and compared DNA and RNA versions of the DNA polymerase alpha (pol alpha) gene from nine diverged spirotrichous ciliates. We identified a G-C rich motif aaTACCGC(G/C/T) upstream from transcription start sites in all nine pol alpha orthologs. Furthermore, we consistently found likely polyadenylation signals, similar to the eukaryotic consensus AAUAAA, within 35 nt upstream of the polyadenylation sites. Numbers of introns differed among orthologs, suggesting independent gain or loss of some introns during the evolution of this gene. Finally, we discuss the occurrence of short direct repeats flanking some introns in the DNA pol alpha genes. These introns flanked by direct repeats resemble a class of DNA sequences called internal eliminated sequences (IES) that are deleted from ciliate chromosomes during development. CONCLUSIONS: Our results suggest that conserved motifs are present at both 5' and 3' untranscribed regions of the DNA pol alpha genes in nine spirotrichous ciliates. We also show that several independent gains and losses of introns in the DNA pol alpha genes have occurred in the spirotrichous ciliate lineage. Finally, our statistical results suggest that proven introns might also function in an IES removal pathway. This could strengthen a recent hypothesis that introns evolve into IESs, explaining the scarcity of introns in spirotrichs. Alternatively, the analysis suggests that ciliates might occasionally use intron splicing to correct, at the RNA level, failures in IES excision during developmental DNA elimination.
2007. Vol. 2, 6- p.