The human Y chromosome (the male chromosome) is sometimes referred to as a “hall of mirrors” as the genes essential for sperm production are encoded in long stretches of mirror-image sequence. That unique pattern provides the lone Y chromosome with pairs of genes within its own structure that can back each other up, helping to maintain its integrity. But a new report in the journal Cell reveals a considerable downside to this massive palindrome-like structure: it can lead to a bewildering array of sex disorders, from sperm failure to sex reversal to Turner syndrome.
The researchers, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, explain how genes often get swapped within one of the Y chromosome’s arms, from one half of a palindrome to the other. But errors in that recombination process turn the whole chromosome into one big mirror-image structure, a so-called isodicentric Y. And those isodicentric Y chromosomes can lead to a kind of “roulette game” with regard to developmental outcome, says David Page, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
The key to an isodicentric Y chromosome’s instability is its two centromeres, Page explained. Centromeres are critical for the proper segregation of chromosomes into two daughter cells at each cell division. “If there are two centromeres, the apparatus for partitioning chromosomes becomes very confused,” he said. “A chromosome can get tugged in two directions at once.” As a result, the chromosome has a tendency to get broken or lost each time cells divide. During the development of an embryo, cells divide extensively to form the ten trillion specialized cells that make up our bodies.
This means that different parts of an individual can wind up keeping or losing the isodicentric Y in essentially random fashion. If the cells that form the gonads in the developing embryo keep the Y, they will be anatomic males. If they lose it, they become anatomic females.
Intriguingly, the chances of sex reversal in those who inherit a modified, isodicentric Y chromosome is greater in those with more of the male-specific genes and a larger Y chromosome to start. That’s because the instability of the chromosome grows with the distance between the two centromeres, a principle first discovered 20 years ago in yeast.
How commonly do these isodicentric Y chromosomes arise in the first place? Page says it is hard to say, but he suspects it is among the more common genetic causes of spermatogenic failure and male infertility. This kind of Y chromosome instability may also be a major cause of Turner syndrome, he suggests, a relatively common chromosomal abnormality that affects one in every 2,500 girls. Girls with Turner syndrome are typically “XO,” meaning they lack one of the sex chromosomes, and most had assumed it was the second X – not a Y – that had gone missing.
There were some clues that might not be the case, Page notes. For one, unlike other chromosomal abnormalities, the incidence of Turner syndrome does not increase with the mother’s age. In fact, the existing X chromosome comes from mom 75 percent of the time; it is dad’s contribution that is usually lacking. They now propose that, in many cases, the missing paternal sex chromosome was not an X at all, but an unstable isodicentric Y. Page thinks the new study offers just a first glimpse into the clinical consequences of the chromosome’s palindromic structure.”I suspect this is the tip of the iceberg,” he concluded.