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Nat Rev Genet. 2005 May;6(5):410-8.

X-chromosome inactivation: a hypothesis linking ontogeny and phylogeny.

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  • 1Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Molecular Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02114, USA.


In mammals, sex is determined by differential inheritance of a pair of dimorphic chromosomes: the gene-rich X chromosome and the gene-poor Y chromosome. To balance the unequal X-chromosome dosage between the XX female and XY male, mammals have adopted a unique form of dosage compensation in which one of the two X chromosomes is inactivated in the female. This mechanism involves a complex, highly coordinated sequence of events and is a very different strategy from those used by other organisms, such as the fruitfly and the worm. Why did mammals choose an inactivation mechanism when other, perhaps simpler, means could have been used? Recent data offer a compelling link between ontogeny and phylogeny. Here, we propose that X-chromosome inactivation and imprinting might have evolved from an ancient genome-defence mechanism that silences unpaired DNA.

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