Blurring the edges in vertebrate sex determination.
Sex in vertebrates is determined by genetically or environmentally based signals. These signals initiate molecular cascades and cell-cell interactions within the gonad that lead to the adoption of the male or female fate. Previously, genetically and environmentally based mechanisms were thought to be distinct, but this idea is fading as a result of the unexpected discovery of coincident genetic and thermal influences within single species. Together with accumulating phylogenetic evidence of frequent transitions between sex-determining mechanisms, these findings suggest that genetic and environmental sex determination actually represent points on a continuum rather than discrete categories, and that populations may shift in one direction or the other in response to mutations or changing ecological conditions. Elucidation of the underlying molecular basis of sex determination in mice has yielded a bistable model of mutually antagonistic signaling pathways and feedback regulatory loops. This system would be highly responsive to changes in the upstream primary signal and may provide a basis for the rapid evolution of and transitions between different methods of sex determination.
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