Transcription factors are often encoded by gene families that share the same type of DNA binding domain. The POU domain genes are one such paradigm. We compared the genomic DNA encoding the POU domain of the Oct-2 genes in human and mouse. In both species this domain is split into a cluster of four exons by short, highly diverged introns. We postulate that the main role of these introns is to prevent ectopic homologous recombination with other members of the POU gene family, with its potentially deleterious effects in somatic and germline cells. Such rapidly diverging introns may generally promote evolution by facilitating the maintenance of duplicated genes. The use of different codons for the same protein domain among members of a gene family may be a slower process that serves a similar purpose. lntrons that split conserved domains such as the POU domain do not conform to the exon shuffling hypothesis originally put forward by W. Gilbert (1978). However, we note that the introns flanking the POU domain are in the same phase, i.e. interrupt codons in the same reading frame. Thus we propose that the entire POU domain, which is encoded by a tight cluster of exons, has been shuffled together during evolution as a functional unit, or `shufflon'.
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