A Developmental Twist: Sex-Specific Gene Expression Programs Emerge Later than Expected

A Developmental Twist: Sex-Specific Gene Expression Programs Emerge Later than Expected

Table of Contents


Understanding the intricate mechanisms behind sex-specific organ development holds immense potential for the life science industry, particularly pharmaceutical companies. This article delves into a study published in Science that sheds light on the genetic programs governing sexual dimorphism.

Decoding Sex-Specific Gene Expression

Sexual dimorphism refers to physical, physiological, or behavioral characteristics that differ between the male and female sexes within a species. Sexual dimorphism arises from differences in gene expression, hormone levels, and genetic regulation between the male and female sexes. These differences are often driven by sex chromosomes, which harbor genes responsible for determining an individual’s sex. Additionally, hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, which are produced in differing amounts in males and females, play a significant role in shaping sexual dimorphism. These hormones influence gene expression patterns during development, leading to the differentiation of tissues and organs associated with male or female reproductive systems. Furthermore, epigenetic mechanisms, such as DNA methylation and histone modifications, can also contribute to sexual dimorphism by regulating gene expression patterns in a sex-specific manner. Environmental factors, including diet, stress, and exposure to toxins, can interact with genetic and hormonal influences to further shape sexual dimorphic traits. Therefore, sexual dimorphism reflects the complex interplay between genetic, hormonal, and environmental factors, which collectively determine the development and expression of sex-specific traits in an organism.

Sexually dimorphic traits represent a fundamental aspect of evolutionary biology, which shapes the diversity and complexity observed across the animal kingdom. However, despite their ubiquity, the molecular mechanisms orchestrating sexually dimorphic traits across species remain a subject of intense investigation and debate.

In a recent publication in Science, Rodríguez-Montes L et al. (2023) explored the molecular mechanisms behind sex-biased gene expression across five mammalian organisms (human, mouse, rat, rabbit, and opossum), as well as a bird species (chicken). Their findings shed light on the intricate interplay between sex-specific genetics and the process of organ development.

Evolutionary Insights and Functional Implications

At Heidelberg University and The Francis Crick Institute, Rodríguez-Montes L et al. (2023) successfully mapped genes actively involved in sexual dimorphism across multiple organisms. In the study, Rodríguez-Montes L et al. (2023) used four time series differential expression algorithms to identify sex-biased genes across organ development, selecting genes identified by at least two algorithms for optimal sensitivity and specificity. Utilizing soft clustering, temporal profiles of genes were analyzed to determine the onset of sex-biased expression. For the mouse liver dataset, single-nucleus RNA sequencing (snRNA-seq) was conducted on samples from four snap-frozen livers, which were then processed with cellranger. Additionally, publicly available mouse and rat single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) datasets were analyzed using Seurat, with ChIPseeker utilized to investigate transcription factors and epigenetic marks associated with sex-biased expression in publicly available datasets.

            The researchers discovered that most of the sex-specific gene expression is triggered by sex hormones and unfolds during puberty. This finding challenges the long-held assumption that these programs are predominantly active during early embryonic development. Another key finding of the study was the non-uniformity of sex-biased gene expression across different organs. Rather than exhibiting a consistent pattern, genes showed varying levels of sex-specific expression depending on the organ under examination. Beyond organ-specific variation, the study provided evidence for the striking differences in sex-biased gene expression between species. This variability reflects the complex interplay between genetic regulation and evolutionary history, suggesting that the functional roles of genes can diverge across different species based on selective pressures and environmental factors.

The variability in sex-biased gene expression was often observed at the cellular and genetic level within an organ. Different cell types within the same organ displayed unique profiles of sex-specific gene expression, indicating that sex differences can be traced to cellular diversity. Overall, this finding emphasizes the importance of considering cell-type specificity when studying sex-specific genetic programs and underscores the complexity of biological systems.

At the genetic level, sex-biased expression was found to evolve rapidly, with different genes exhibiting varying degrees of divergence between males and females across species. This rapid evolution likely reflects the selective pressures acting on sex-specific functions. However, it was discovered that certain genes are conserved, such as the pairs of gametologs KDM6A/UTY and KDM5C/KDM5D, that could be playing important sex-related roles across species. Importantly, it was found that although sex-biased expression evolves fast at the gene level, it evolves more slowly at the cell type level. For instance, certain cell types involved in reproduction or immune response maintain their sex-specific roles across diverse mammals, indicating functional conservation at the cellular level. Overall, these findings suggest an intricate balance between maintaining sex-specific functions and adapting to environmental changes, with evolutionary forces shaping the overall landscape of sex-biased expression.

            In conclusion, this study provided valuable insights into the evolution of sex-specific programs. The study showed a marked sex-specific difference in organ functionality, particularly for the liver and kidneys.  These differences are important to consider since genes essential for drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics are sexually dimorphic and can lead to distinct effects in men versus women.  Ultimately, sexual dimorphism has significant implications for drug development, and underscores the need for sex-specific considerations in drug efficacy and safety assessments.

Advancing Research with Bridge Informatics

By harnessing the power of bioinformatics and drawing on the latest scientific advancements such as this study, Bridge Informatics empowers its clients to navigate the complexities of sex-specific biology and translate research into life-saving advancements in healthcare.

BI’s data scientists prioritize studying, understanding, and reporting on the latest developments so we can advise our clients confidently. The generation, storage and analysis of biological data is faster and more accessible than ever before. From pipeline development and software engineering to deploying your existing bioinformatic tools, Bridge Informatics can help you on every step of your research journey.

As experts across data types from leading sequencing platforms, we can help you tackle the challenging computational tasks of storing, analyzing and interpreting genomic and transcriptomic data. Bridge Informatics’ bioinformaticians are trained bench biologists, so they understand the biological questions driving your computational analysis. Click here to schedule a free introductory call with a member of our team.

Share this article with a friend

Create an account to access this functionality.
Discover the advantages