Evolution of sex-determining mechanisms in reptiles

  • Alexander E Quinn

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Reptiles exhibit marked diversity in sex-determining mechanisms. Many species exhibit genotypic sex determination (GSD) with male heterogamety (XX females/XY males),others have GSD with female heterogamety (ZW females/ZZ males),and still others exhibit temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). The distribution of these mechanisms throughout the reptile phylogeny implies evolutionary lability in sex determination, and in some lineages there has been a number of transitions between GSD and TSD. Despite this diversity, GSD and TSD have traditionally been viewed as mutually-exclusive mechanisms of sex determination in reptiles, since there is little evidence for their co-occurrence. Considerable empirical and theoretical effort has been directed towards understanding the adaptive significance of TSD in reptiles. In comparison, there has been little focus on understanding how evolutionary transitions between GSD and TSD occur at a genetic and mechanistic level. I addressed this question by applying both empirical and theoretical approaches to investigate interaction of genotypic and temperature influences in the sex determination of two endemic species of Australian lizards. The three-lined skink, Bassiana duperreyi, has XX/XY chromosomal sex determination, yet a previous investigation reported a significant male bias in the sex ratio of eggs incubated at low temperatures. To enable an explicit test for temperature induced sex reversal in this species, a 185 bp Y chromosome marker was isolated by Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism (AFLP) analysis. The marker was subsequently converted into a duplex PCR assay that co-amplified a 185 bp (or 92 bp) Y chromosome fragment and a 356 bp fragment of the single-copy nuclear gene C-mos (from both sexes) as a positive control. The accuracy of the PCR sex assay was tested on 78 individuals for which sex reversal was not expected. PCR genotype and sex phenotype were concordant for 96% of the animals. This is one of the very few sex tests developed for a reptile, and the first report of Y chromosome sequence from a reptile. The PCR assay was subsequently applied to genotype hatchlings from both cool (16-7.5C) and warm (22-7.5C) cyclical incubation temperature treatments, and identified sex reversal in 15% of genotypically female (XX) embryos (n=26) from the cool treatment, but no sex reversal in eggs from the warmer treatment (n=35). Thus, low incubation temperatures can over-ride genotypic sex determination in B. duperreyi, indicating that GSD and TSD co-occur in this species. The Central bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps (Agamidae),has ZZ/ZW chromosomal sex determination, and is a member of a lizard family in which GSD and TSD are both widespread, indicating evolutionary lability in sex determination. AFLP analysis was applied to isolate homologous Z and W chromosome-linked markers (71 bp and 72 bp, respectively) from this species. The AFLP sequences were subsequently extended into larger genomic fragments by a reiterated genome walking procedure, producing three non-overlapping contigs of 1.7 kb,2.2 kb and 4.5 kb. The latter two fragments were verified as distinct, homologous Z/W chromosome fragments by PCR analyses. An amplified 3 kb fragment of the 4.5 kb contig was physically mapped to metaphase spreads, identifying the W microchromosome, and for the first time in this species, the Z microchromosome. PCR analyses indicated the presence of homologous sequences in other Australian agamid species, including both GSD and TSD species. The isolated sequences should therefore prove useful as a comparative genomic tool for investigating the genomic changes that have occurred in evolutionary transitions between sexdetermining mechanisms in agamids, by enabling the identification of chromosomes in TSD species that are homologous to the sex chromosomes of P. vitticeps. The isolated sequences were further converted into a duplex DNA sex assay that co-amplified a 224 bp W chromosome fragment and a 963 bp positive control fragment in both sexes. This PCR assay diagnosed chromosomal sex in three Pogona species, but was not effective outside the genus. Incubation treatment of P. vitticeps eggs revealed a strong and increasing female bias at high constant temperatures (34-36C),but an unbiased sex ratio between 22-32C. Hatchlings from three clutches split between 28C and 34 or 36C incubation treatments were genotyped with the W chromosome AFLP marker. At 28C,the sex ratio was 1:1 but the high temperature treatments produced 2 males and 33 females. All but one of the 30 lizards (97%) incubated at 28C had concordant sex phenotype and genotype, but only 18 of 35 animals (51%) from the high temperature treatment were concordant. All discordant animals were genotypic males (ZZ) that developed as females. Thus, temperature and genotypic influences can interact to determine sex in P. vitticeps. These empirical findings for B. duperreyi and P. vitticeps were extended into a novel theory for the evolution of sex-determining mechanisms in reptiles, working within the framework that species with temperature-induced reversal of chromosomal sex determination are a window to transitional stages of evolution between GSD and TSD. A model was derived from the observation that in both lizards, an extreme of incubation temperature causes sex reversal of the homogametic genotype. In this model, the strength of a genetic regulatory signal for sex determination must exceed a threshold for development of the homogametic sex to occur (male in Pogona, female in Bassiana). The strength of this signal is also temperature-sensitive, so diminishes at extremes of temperature. Simulation modelling demonstrated that increasing the relative magnitude of the threshold for sexual development can cause evolutionary transitions between GSD and TSD. Even more remarkably, decreasing the relative magnitude of the threshold value causes an evolutionary transition between female and male heterogametic GSD. Quantitative adjustment of a single model parameter (the threshold value) thus charts a continuous evolutionary pathway between the three principal mechanisms of sex determination in reptiles (XX/XY-ZZ/ZW-TSD),which were previously considered to be qualitatively distinct mechanisms. The experimental demonstration of temperature-induced reversal of chromosomal sex determination in both B. duperreyi and P. vitticeps presents a challenge to the traditional view that reptilian sex determination is strictly dichotomous (GSD or TSD),and suggests instead that sex determination in reptiles consists of a continuum of systems of interaction between genotypic and temperature influences. Simulation modelling provided solid theoretical support for this proposition, demonstrating that transitions along this continuum are effected simply through shifts in the mean population value for the sex-determining threshold, without requiring substantial genotypic innovation. An important implication of this theory is that transitions between XX/XY and ZZ/ZW modes of GSD may retain the same sex chromosome pair, and the same primary sexdetermining gene, in contrast to previous models for heterogametic transitions. A more immediate implication of these findings is that many reptile species believed to have strict TSD (in particular, lizards and crocodilians),may in fact have a sex-determining system of GSD-TSD interaction, where there is an equilibrium between GSD and TSD individuals within the population.
Date of Award2008
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Canberra
SupervisorStephen Sarre (Supervisor), Arthur Georges (Supervisor) & Jenny Graves (Supervisor)

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