Your reputation precedes you


The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.

The presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD. […]

That the two sexes are physically different is obvious, but at the start of life, it is not. Five weeks into development, a human embryo has the potential to form both male and female anatomy. Next to the developing kidneys, two bulges known as the gonadal ridges emerge alongside two pairs of ducts, one of which can form the uterus and Fallopian tubes, and the other the male internal genital plumbing: the epididymes, vas deferentia and seminal vesicles. At six weeks, the gonad switches on the developmental pathway to become an ovary or a testis. If a testis develops, it secretes testosterone, which supports the development of the male ducts. It also makes other hormones that force the presumptive uterus and Fallopian tubes to shrink away. If the gonad becomes an ovary, it makes oestrogen, and the lack of testosterone causes the male plumbing to wither. The sex hormones also dictate the development of the external genitalia, and they come into play once more at puberty, triggering the development of secondary sexual characteristics such as breasts or facial hair. […]

For many years, scientists believed that female development was the default programme, and that male development was actively switched on by the presence of a particular gene on the Y chromosome. In 1990, researchers made headlines when they uncovered the identity of this gene, which they called SRY. Just by itself, this gene can switch the gonad from ovarian to testicular development. For example, XX individuals who carry a fragment of the Y chromosome that contains SRY develop as males.

{ Nature | Continue reading }