Intron retention (IR) regulates hundreds of erythroid genes in a differentiation stage-specific manner during terminal erythropoiesis. Regulated genes include highly expressed RNA binding proteins (RBPs) such as SF3B1, as well as iron transporters (e.g., mitoferrins 1 and 2), and cytoskeletal proteins (e.g., alpha spectrin). Selected IR transcripts are relatively abundant; 25-50% of the above-mentioned transcripts can be polyadenylated, retained in the nucleus, and efficiently spliced at all but one or two introns, thus limiting the amount of translatable cytoplasmic mRNA. We are studying novel IR regulatory mechanisms involving both splice site strength and deeper intronic elements, using model introns that are differentially regulated in human erythroblasts. SF3B1, a key pre-RNA splicing factor implicated in MDS, exhibits dynamic regulation of intron 4, with low IR in proerythroblasts and high IR in mature orthochromatic erythroblasts. Intron 4 sequences include three ultraconserved elements that encode cryptic exons we term 4a, 4b, and 4c, two of which (4a and 4c) encode premature termination codons (PTCs) expected to induce nonsense-mediated decay (NMD) if spliced into SF3B1 transcripts. We hypothesize that these PTC exons can have an additional function as inefficiently spliced decoy(s), that is, their splice sites may interact with splice sites at the boundaries of intron 4 to form non-productive complexes that do not permit efficient splicing but instead prevent excision of the intron. This concept represents an extension of decoy models previously proposed by others to explain selected exon skipping events, and is supported by several recent findings: eCLIP (enhanced cross-linking and immunoprecipitation) data indicate strong binding of 3' splice site factors U2AF1 and U2AF2 at these exons; low levels of exon 4a and 4c splicing can be seen in NMD-inhibited cells; and deletion of exon 4c from minigene splicing reporters decreases IR. Besides SF3B1, we identified numerous other dynamically-regulated IR events encompassing cryptic PTC exons that bind 3' splice site factors. In contrast to the dynamic regulation of IR in SF3B1, IR in SLC25A37 (mitoferrin-1) and SLC25A28 (mitoferrin-2) is stably maintained at a high level throughout terminal erythropoiesis. Baseline IR levels for stably retained introns correlate with splice site strength, but are also influenced by deeper intronic elements. For example, SLC25A28 intron 2 contains intronic elements that appear to reduce IR, since blocking them with antisense morpholinos leads to substantially increased IR levels. These studies demonstrate that IR in major erythroid genes is regulated by sequences within the retained introns that can either increase or decrease retention, suggesting that multiple IR pathways are employed during terminal erythropoiesis to regulate gene expression.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.