As orthologous genes from related species diverge over time, some sequences are conserved in noncoding regions. In mammals, large phylogenetic footprints, or conserved noncoding sequences (CNSs), are known to be common features of genes. Here we present the first large-scale analysis of plant genes for CNSs. We used maize and rice, maximally diverged members of the grass family of monocots. Using a local sequence alignment set to deliver only significant alignments, we found one or more CNSs in the noncoding regions of the majority of genes studied. Grass genes have dramatically fewer and much smaller CNSs than mammalian genes. Twenty-seven percent of grass gene comparisons revealed no CNSs. Genes functioning in upstream regulatory roles, such as transcription factors, are greatly enriched for CNSs relative to genes encoding enzymes or structural proteins. Further, we show that a CNS cluster in an intron of the knotted1 homeobox gene serves as a site of negative regulation. We show that CNSs in the adh1 gene do not correlate with known cis-acting sites. We discuss the potential meanings of CNSs and their value as analytical tools and evolutionary characters. We advance the idea that many CNSs function to lock-in gene regulatory decisions.
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