Evolution of "determinants" in sex-determination: A novel hypothesis for the origin of environmental contingencies in avian sex-bias

Tobias Uller, Alexander V. Badyaev

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Sex-determination is commonly categorized as either "genetic" or "environmental"-a classification that obscures the origin of this dichotomy and the evolution of sex-determining factors. The current focus on static outcomes of sex-determination provides little insight into the dynamic developmental processes by which some mechanisms acquire the role of sex determinants. Systems that combine "genetic" pathways of sex-determination (i.e., sex chromosomes) with "environmental" pathways (e.g., epigenetically induced segregation distortion) provide an opportunity to examine the evolutionary relationships between the two classes of processes and, ultimately, illuminate the evolution of sex-determining systems. Taxa with sex chromosomes typically undergo an evolutionary reduction in size of one of the sex chromosomes due to suppressed recombination, resulting in pronounced dimorphism of the sex chromosomes, and setting the stage for emergence of epigenetic compensatory mechanisms regulating meiotic segregation of heteromorphic sex chromosomes. Here we propose that these dispersed and redundant regulatory mechanisms enable environmental contingency in genetic sex-determination in birds and account for frequently documented context-dependence in avian sex-determination. We examine the evolution of directionality in such sex-determination as a result of exposure of epigenetic regulators of meiosis to natural selection and identify a central role of hormones in integrating female reproductive homeostasis, resource allocation to oocytes, and offspring sex. This approach clarifies the evolutionary relationship between sex-specific molecular genetic mechanisms of sex-determination and non-sex-specific epigenetic regulators of meiosis and demonstrates that both can determine sex. Our perspective shows how non-sex-specific mechanisms can acquire sex-determining function and, by establishing the explicit link between physiological integration of oogenesis and sex-determination, opens new avenues to the studies of adaptive sex-bias and sex-specific resource allocation in species with genetic sex-determination.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)304-312
Number of pages9
JournalSeminars in Cell and Developmental Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2009


  • Adaptive sex-bias
  • Avian meiosis
  • Epigenetic effects
  • Hormones
  • Maternal effects
  • Segregation distortion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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