Divergent evolution of genetic sex determination mechanisms along environmental gradients

Martijn A. Schenkel*, Jean-Christophe Billeter, Leo Beukeboom, Ido Pen*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Sex determination (SD) is a crucial developmental process, but its molecular underpinnings are very diverse, both between and within species. SD mechanisms have traditionally been categorized as either genetic (GSD) or environmental (ESD), depending on the type of cue that triggers sexual differentiation. However, mixed systems, with both genetic and environmental components, are more prevalent than previously thought. Here, we show theoretically that environmental effects on expression levels of genes within SD regulatory mechanisms can easily trigger within-species evolutionary divergence of SD mechanisms. This may lead to the stable coexistence of multiple SD mechanisms and to spatial variation in the
occurrence of different SD mechanisms along environmental gradients. We applied the model to the SD system of the housefly, a global species with world-wide latitudinal clines in the frequencies of different SD systems, and found that it correctly predicted these clines if specific genes in the housefly SD system were assumed to have temperature-dependent expression levels. We conclude that environmental sensitivity of gene regulatory networks may play an important role in diversification of SD mechanisms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)132-144
Number of pages13
JournalEvolution Letters
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun-2023


  • clinal distribution
  • environmental sex determination
  • female determiner
  • genetic sex determination
  • polymorphism
  • housefly
  • male determiner
  • sex chromosomes
  • temperature
  • transformer

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