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The evolution, impact and properties of exonic splice enhancers

Eva Fernández Cáceres and Laurence D Hurst*

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY, UK

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Genome Biology 2013, 14:R143  doi:10.1186/gb-2013-14-12-r143

Published: 20 December 2013



In humans, much of the information specifying splice sites is not at the splice site. Exonic splice enhancers are one of the principle non-splice site motifs. Four high-throughput studies have provided a compendium of motifs that function as exonic splice enhancers, but only one, RESCUE-ESE, has been generally employed to examine the properties of enhancers. Here we consider these four datasets to ask whether there is any consensus on the properties and impacts of exonic splice enhancers.


While only about 1% of all the identified hexamer motifs are common to all analyses we can define reasonably sized sets that are found in most datasets. These consensus intersection datasets we presume reflect the true properties of exonic splice enhancers. Given prior evidence for the properties of enhancers and splice-associated mutations, we ask for all datasets whether the exonic splice enhancers considered are purine enriched; enriched near exon boundaries; able to predict trends in relative codon usage; slow evolving at synonymous sites; rare in SNPs; associated with weak splice sites; and enriched near longer introns. While the intersect datasets match expectations, only one original dataset, RESCUE-ESE, does. Unexpectedly, a fully experimental dataset identifies motifs that commonly behave opposite to the consensus, for example, being enriched in exon cores where splice-associated mutations are rare.


Prior analyses that used the RESCUE-ESE set of hexamers captured the properties of consensus exonic splice enhancers. We estimate that at least 4% of synonymous mutations are deleterious owing to an effect on enhancer functioning.