De novo genes with an lncRNA origin encode unique human brain developmental functionality
Human de novo genes can originate from neutral long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) loci and are evolutionarily significant in general, yet how and why this all-or-nothing transition to functionality happens remains unclear. Here, in 74 human/hominoid-specific de novo genes, we identified distinctive U1 elements and RNA splice-related sequences accounting for RNA nuclear export, differentiating mRNAs from lncRNAs, and driving the origin of de novo genes from lncRNA loci. The polymorphic sites facilitating the lncRNA–mRNA conversion through regulating nuclear export are selectively constrained, maintaining a boundary that differentiates mRNAs from lncRNAs. The functional new genes actively passing through it thus showed a mode of pre-adaptive origin, in that they acquire functions along with the achievement of their coding potential. As a proof of concept, we verified the regulations of splicing and U1 recognition on the nuclear export efficiency of one of these genes, the ENSG00000205704, in human neural progenitor cells. Notably, knock-out or over-expression of this gene in human embryonic stem cells accelerates or delays the neuronal maturation of cortical organoids, respectively. The transgenic mice with ectopically expressed ENSG00000205704 showed enlarged brains with cortical expansion. We thus demonstrate the key roles of nuclear export in de novo gene origin. These newly originated genes should reflect the novel uniqueness of human brain development.