PerspectiveDevelopment

How does temperature determine sex?

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Science  11 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6389, pp. 601-602
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat5993

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Summary

Sex determination in reptiles is a complex affair, because incubation temperature and genes interact in many species to regulate sexual development and decide sexual fate, male or female (14). A central question that has remained unanswered is, what molecular mechanism allows temperature to so profoundly influence the developmental pathways that determine sex? The means to identify a master sex-determining gene in species with genetic sex determination is well established—identify genes on the sex chromosomes, demonstrate which of these are differentially expressed in male and female embryos early in development, and manipulate their expression to demonstrate reversal of sex (57). Not so with identifying the mechanisms of temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). Temperature could exert its effect on any of the many autosomal genes involved in sexual differentiation, even those peripherally involved, provided their altered expression is capable of reversing sex. Little wonder that, in the 50 years since TSD was discovered in reptiles (8), we have not advanced far in our understanding of the mechanisms of TSD. This is about to change. On page 645 of this issue, Ge et al. (9) report that transcription of the chromatin modifier gene Kdm6b (lysine-specific demethylase 6B) responds to temperature in the red-eared slider turtle Trachemys scripta elegans, and confers temperature sensitivity to a key sex-determining gene, Dmrt1 (doublesex- and mab-3–related transcription factor 1).