Sex determination in vertebrates is accomplished through a highly conserved genetic pathway. But surprisingly, the downstream events may be activated by a variety of triggers, including sex determining genes and environmental cues. Amongst species with genetic sex determination, the sex determining gene is anything but conserved, and the chromosomes that bear this master switch subscribe to special rules of evolution and function. In mammals, with a few notable exceptions, female are homogametic (XX) and males have a single X and a small, heterochromatic and gene poor Y that bears a male dominant sex determining gene SRY. The bird sex chromosome system is the converse in that females are the heterogametic sex (ZW) and males the homogametic sex (ZZ). There is no SRY in birds, and the dosage-sensitive Z-borne DMRT1 gene is a credible candidate sex determining gene. Different sex determining switches seem therefore to have evolved independently in different lineages, although the complex sex chromosomes of the platypus offer us tantalizing clues that the mammal XY system may have evolved directly from an ancient reptile ZW system. In this review we will discuss the organization and evolution of the sex chromosomes across a broad range of mammals, and speculate on how the Y chromosome, and SRY, evolved. © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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