Analyzing the X chromosome is vital to understanding the evolution of sex, said Ming, an affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois. The new findings in papaya suggest that the human X chromosome, too, has undergone numerous changes since it first distinguished itself from the autosomes, Ming said. Such changes are not detectable because the ancestral autosomes are no longer available for comparison, he said.
Because the papaya sex chromosomes are young and can be compared to closely related autosomes in a sister species, they offer a view of the early events of both X and Y chromosome evolution, Ming said.
Studying papaya sex chromosomes is a complicated task, however. The papaya has male, female and hermaphrodite sexual types, with two kinds of Y chromosomes (the male Y and the slightly modified, hermaphrodite Yh). Papaya plants may produce combinations of male and female (from the XY system) or hermaphrodite and female (from the XYh system) plants.
This complexity causes problems for papaya growers, Ming said. Hermaphrodites are the most productive of the papaya sexual types and yield the best fruit, but the offspring of hermaphrodites are not all hermaphrodites. To aid growers, Ming and his colleagues aim to develop a "true-breeding" hermaphrodite papaya variety that consistently produces hermaphrodite offspring.
When the researchers compared the X chromosome and the hermaphrodite Yh chromosome, they discovered that two major sequence inversions in the sex-determining regions of the Yh had taken place. One of these inversions occurred
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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign