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In humans, mice and other mammals, genetic sex is determined by the combination of sex chromosomes that each individual inherits. Individuals with two X chromosomes (XX) are said to be chromosomally female, while individuals with one X and one Y chromosome (XY) are chromosomally males.
One of the major differences between XX and XY individuals is that they have different types of gonads (the organs that make egg cells or sperm). In mice, for example, before males are born, a gene called Sox9 triggers a cascade of events that result in the gonads developing into testes. In females, on the other hand, another gene called Rspo1 stimulates the gonads to develop into ovaries.
Loss of Sox9 in XY embryos, or Rspo1 in XX embryos, leads to mice developing physical characteristics that do not match their genetic sex, a phenomenon known as sex reversal. For example, in XX female mice lacking Rspo1, cells in the gonads reprogram into testis cells known as Sertoli cells just before birth and form male structures known as testis cords. The gonads of female mice missing both Sox9 and Rspo1 (referred to as “double mutants”) also develop Sertoli cells and testis cords, suggesting another gene may compensate for the loss of Sox9.
Previous studies suggest that a gene known as Sox8, which is closely related to Sox9, may be able to drive sex reversal in female mice. However, it was not clear whether Sox8 is able to stimulate testis to form in female mice in the absence of Sox9.
To address this question, Richardson et al. studied mutant female mice lacking Rspo1, Sox8 and Sox9, known as “triple mutants”. Just before birth, the gonads in the triple mutant mice showed some characteristics of sex reversal but lacked the Sertoli cells found in the double mutant mice. After the mice were born, the gonads of the triple mutant mice developed as rudimentary ovaries without testis cords, unlike the more testis-like gonads found in the double mutant mice.
The findings of Richardson et al. show that Sox8 is able to trigger sex reversal in female mice in the absence of Rspo1 and Sox9. Differences in sexual development in humans affect the appearance of individuals and often cause infertility. Identifying Sox8 and other similar genes in mice may one day help to diagnose people with such conditions and lead to the development of new therapies.