Splicing of pre-messenger RNA is necessary to remove introns and create well formed and translateable mRNA, but the purpose of introns still remains a mystery. One idea is they provide a role in the error checking machinery, or Nonsense Mediated Decay (NMD), by providing way-points during translation. A protein is deposited at the exon junction complex (EJC) which indicates a splicing event has occurred. During translation, if the ribosome encounters a premature stop (or termination) codon (PTC) and then sees one of these EJC way-points, it signals the corrupted message for degradation.
Several predictions come out of these models including the lack of introns in the 3′ UTR and that the average length of exons should be correlated with the window that the proofreading mechanism can operate on. These are discussed in several papers out of Mike Lynch’s lab including (Lynch and Connery 2003), (Lynch and Kewalramani, 2003), (Lynch and Richardson, 2002) and recently (Scofield et al, 2007).
Efforts to understand the splicing machinery, particularly in S. cerevisiae have led to the discovery of numerous genes that code for proteins that make up the spliceosome. Some of these include small RNAs as well as protein coding genes. The SR proteins are serine-arginine rich proteins that regulate splicing and are found in almost all eukaryotes including most fungi (even those with few introns, such as S. cerevisiae). SR proteins play a role in splicing and in nuclear export (Masuyama et al, 2004, Sanford et al, 2004) indicating that a coupling of these processes may explain why genes with introns tend to be more highly expressed. The evolution of the spliceosomal family of genes is also interesting because the families appear to diversify in some eukaryotes perhaps where there are more elaborate splicing and regulatory action (Barbosa-Morais et al, 2006).
There is some debate as to whether splicing occurs after the pre-mRNA is completely synthesized or if it happens as transcription is occurring. Work on this has shown that both spliceosomal assembly can co-occur with polymerase during transcription, as well as evidence that most splicing (in yeast) is post-transcriptional (Tardiff et al, 2006). It is argued that the two steps occur together to maximize efficiency and fidelity (Das et el, 2006, Moore et al, 2006), but perhaps affinities are species-specific and have evolved to correlate with intron densities?
[Note: This post has links to non-open access journal articles. At this point I am still referring to these even if they are not all readable by everyone, because they contain some data that is only available there. I will strive to focus more narrowly on only papers that are available as open access through pubmed central or directly through open-access journals.]