Avian sex, sex chromosomes, and dosage compensation in the age of genomics Academic Article uri icon


  • Comparisons of the sex chromosome systems in birds and mammals are widening our view and deepening our understanding of vertebrate sex chromosome organization, function, and evolution. Birds have a very conserved ZW system of sex determination in which males have two copies of a large, gene-rich Z chromosome, and females have a single Z and a female-specific W chromosome. The avian ZW system is quite the reverse of the well-studied mammalian XY chromosome system, and evolved independently from different autosomal blocs. Despite the different gene content of mammal and bird sex chromosomes, there are many parallels. Genes on the bird Z and the mammal X have both undergone selection for male-advantage functions, and there has been amplification of male-advantage genes and accumulation of LINEs. The bird W and mammal Y have both undergone extensive degradation, but some birds retain early stages and some mammals terminal stages of the process, suggesting that the process is more advanced in mammals. Different sex-determining genes, DMRT1 and SRY, define the ZW and XY systems, but DMRT1 is involved in downstream events in mammals. Birds show strong cell autonomous specification of somatic sex differences in ZZ and ZW tissue, but there is growing evidence for direct X chromosome effects on sexual phenotype in mammals. Dosage compensation in birds appears to be phenotypically and molecularly quite different from X inactivation, being partial and gene-specific, but both systems use tools from the same molecular toolbox and there are some signs that galliform birds represent an early stage in the evolution of a coordinated system.

publication date

  • 2014