Elimination of the male reproductive tract in the female embryo is promoted by COUP-TFII in mice

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Science  18 Aug 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6352, pp. 717-720
DOI: 10.1126/science.aai9136

The makings of the reproductive tract

Every embryo, regardless of its sex, contains both male and female primitive reproductive tracts before sexual differentiation. To establish a sex-specific reproductive system, female embryos need to remove the components of male tracts. The general consensus contends that removal of the male tracts occurs by default, a passive outcome owing to a lack of testis-derived androgens. Working in mice, Zhao et al. discovered that this process instead was actively promoted by the transcription factor COUP-TFII (see the Perspective by Swain). Without the action of this factor, embryos retained male reproductive tracts, independently of androgen action. These findings unveil unexpected mechanisms underlying the sexually dimorphic establishment of reproductive tracts.

Science, this issue p. 717; see also p. 648


The sexual differentiation paradigm contends that the female pattern of the reproductive system is established by default because the male reproductive tracts (Wolffian ducts) in the female degenerate owing to a lack of androgen. Here, we discovered that female mouse embryos lacking Coup-tfII (chicken ovalbumin upstream promoter transcription factor II) in the Wolffian duct mesenchyme became intersex—possessing both female and male reproductive tracts. Retention of Wolffian ducts was not caused by ectopic androgen production or action. Instead, enhanced phosphorylated extracellular signal-regulated kinase signaling in Wolffian duct epithelium was responsible for the retention of male structures in an androgen-independent manner. We thus suggest that elimination of Wolffian ducts in female embryos is actively promoted by COUP-TFII, which suppresses a mesenchyme-epithelium cross-talk responsible for Wolffian duct maintenance.

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