Sex, muscles and metabolism

The effects of proteins secreted by skeletal muscles to communicate with metabolic tissues like the liver or pancreas depend on genetic sex in humans.

A man and a woman holding dumbbells. Image credit: Karolina Grabowska (CC BY 4.0)

The muscles that are responsible for voluntary movements such as exercise are called skeletal muscles. These muscles secrete proteins called myokines, which play roles in a variety of processes by interacting with other tissues. Essentially, myokines allow skeletal muscles to communicate with organs such as the kidneys, the liver or the brain, which is essential for the body to keep its metabolic balance. Some of the process myokines are involved include inflammation, cancer, the changes brought about by exercise, and even cognition. Despite the clear relevance of myokines to so many physiological outcomes, the way these proteins are regulated and their effects are not well understood.

Genetic sex – specified by sex chromosomes in mammals – contributes to critical aspects of physiology. Specifically, many of the metabolic traits impacted by myokines show striking differences arising from hormonal or genetic interactions depending on the genetic sex of the subject being studied. It is therefore important to consider genetic sex when studying the effects of myokines on the body.

Velez, Van et al. wanted to gain a better understanding of how skeletal muscles interact with metabolic tissues such as pancreas, liver and brain, taking genetic sex into consideration. To do this they surveyed human datasets for the correlations between the activity of genes that code for myokines, the composition of muscle cells, the signaling between muscles and metabolic tissues and genetic sex.

Their results showed that, genetic sex and sex hormones predicted most of the effects of skeletal muscle on other tissues. For example, myokines from muscle were predicted to be more impactful on liver or pancreas, depending on whether individuals were male or female, respectively.

The results of Velez, Van et al. illustrate the importance of considering the effects of genetic sex and sexual hormones when studying metabolism. In the future, these results will allow other researchers to design sex-specific experiments to be able to gather more accurate information about the mechanisms of myokine signaling.