The classic concept of epistatic fitness interactions between genes has been extended to study interactions within gene regions, especially between nucleotides that are important in maintaining pre-mRNA/mRNA secondary structures. It is shown that the majority of linkage disequilibria found within the Drosophila Adh gene are likely to be caused by epistatic selection operating on RNA secondary structures. A recently proposed method of RNA secondary structure prediction based on DNA sequence comparisons is reviewed and applied to several types of RNAs, including tRNA, rRNA, and mRNA. The patterns of covariation in these RNAs are analyzed based on Kimura's compensatory evolution model. The results suggest that this model describes the substitution process in the pairing regions (helices) of RNA secondary structures well when the helices are evolutionarily conserved and thermodynamically stable, but fails in some other cases. Epistatic selection maintaining pre-mRNA/mRNA secondary structures is compared to weak selective forces that determine features such as base composition and synonymous codon usage. The relationships among these forces and their relative strengths are addressed. Finally, our mutagenesis experiments using the Drosophila Adh locus are reviewed. These experiments analyze long-range compensatory interactions between the 5' and 3' ends of Adh mRNA, the different constraints on secondary structures in introns and exons, and the possible role of secondary structures in RNA splicing.
1999 by The Genetics Society of Japan