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Evolutionary biologists glimpse early stages of Y-chromosome degeneration
Date:5/13/2014

TORONTO, ON In many species, the possession of X and Y chromosomes determines whether an individual develops into a male or female. In humans, for example, individuals who inherit their father's Y chromosome become male (XY), and individuals who inherit their father's X chromosome become female (XX).

This system of sex determination has evolved independently multiple times and a striking feature of its evolution is that Y chromosomes have degenerated genetically, losing many genes over time. What is not well understood, however, is what happens to the Y chromosome during the earliest stages of this evolution, or the time scales over which degeneration occurs.

Now, University of Toronto (U of T) researchers have found a way to shed light on the early stages of degeneration, by investigating the process in plants.

"In humans, the Y chromosome has undergone extensive gene loss over its roughly200-million-year evolutionary history, and now retains only about three per cent of its ancestral genes. We know very little about the early stages of the process, however, because it happened so long ago," said U of T Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB) professor Spencer Barrett, co-investigator of a study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "The most well-studied Y chromosomes, including those in humans and other animal species, began degenerating hundreds of millions of years ago. Not so with plants."

"The emergence of separate sexes in plants is a relatively recent evolutionary innovation, making them ideal for this study," said Barret. "Only about six per cent of flowering plants have males and females. The remainder are hermaphrodites."

The scientists used a plant species with separate sexes whose X and Y chromosomes probably first evolved around 15 million years ago at the most, making them relatively young compared to those in animals.

"We tested for Y-chromo
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Contact: Sean Bettam
s.bettam@utoronto.ca
416-946-7950
University of Toronto
Source:Eurekalert

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