Whitehead Institute Director David Page’s new research featured in New York Times

NYT-logo-3Researchers See New Importance in Y Chromosome

There is new reason to respect the diminutive male Y chromosome.

Besides its long-known role of reversing the default state of being female, the Y chromosome includes genes required for the general operation of the genome, according to two new surveys of its evolutionary history. These genes may represent a fundamental difference in how the cells in men’s and women’s bodies read off the information in their genomes.

When researchers were first able to analyze the genetic content of the Y chromosome, they found it had shed hundreds of genes over time, explaining why it was so much shorter than its partner, the X chromosome. All cells in a man’s body have an X and a Y chromosome; women’s have two X chromosomes.

The finding created considerable consternation. The Y had so few genes left that it seemed the loss of a few more could tip it into extinction.

But an analysis in 2012 showed that the rhesus monkey’s Y chromosome had essentially the same number of genes as the human Y. This suggested that the Y had stabilized and ceased to lose genes for the last 25 million years, the interval since the two species diverged from a common ancestor.

Two new surveys have now reconstructed the full history of the Y chromosome back to its evolutionary origin. One research group was led by Daniel W. Bellott and David C. Page of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and the other by Diego Cortez and Henrik Kaessmann of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Their findings were reported on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

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