Concepts

The presence of the SRY gene on the Y chromosome causes a human embryo to develop as a male. In the absence of this gene, a human embryo develops as a female.

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SRY gene

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Androgen-insensitivity syndrome Several genes besides SRY influence sexual development in humans, as illustrated by women with androgen-insensitivity syndrome. These persons have female external sexual characteristics and psychological orientation. Indeed, most are unaware of their condition until they reach puberty and fail to menstruate. Examination by a gynecologist reveals that the vagina ends blindly and that the uterus, oviducts, and ovaries are absent. Inside the abdominal cavity lies a pair of testes, which produce levels of testosterone normally seen in males. The cells of a woman with androgen-insensitivity syndrome contain an X and a Y chromosome.

How can a person be female in appearance when her cells contain a Y chromosome and she has testes that produce testosterone? The answer lies in the complex relation between genes and sex in humans. In a human embryo with a Y chromosome, the SRY gene causes the gonads to develop into testes, which produce testosterone. Testosterone stimulates embryonic tissues to develop male characteristics. But, for testosterone to have its effects, it must bind to an androgen receptor. This receptor is defective in females with androgen-insensitivity syndrome; consequently, their cells are insensitive to testosterone, and female characteristics develop. The gene for the androgen receptor is located on the X chromosome; so persons with this condition always inherit it from their mothers. (All XY persons inherit the X chromosome from their mothers.)

Androgen-insensitivity syndrome illustrates several important points about the influence of genes on a person's sex. First, this condition demonstrates that human sexual development is a complex process, influenced not only by the SRY gene on the Y chromosome, but also by other genes found elsewhere. Second, it shows that most people carry genes for both male and female characteristics, as illustrated by the fact that those with androgen-insensitivity syndrome have the capacity to produce female characteristics, even though they have male chromosomes. Indeed, the genes for most male and female secondary sex characteristics are present not on the sex chromosomes but on autosomes. The key to maleness and femaleness lies not in the genes but in the control of their expression.

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