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PLoS One. 2007 Aug 22;2(8):e780.

A sex-specific metabolite identified in a marine invertebrate utilizing phosphorus-31 nuclear magnetic resonance.

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  • 1Research Resources Center, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, United States of America.


Hormone level differences are generally accepted as the primary cause for sexual dimorphism in animal and human development. Levels of low molecular weight metabolites also differ between men and women in circulating amino acids, lipids and carbohydrates and within brain tissue. While investigating the metabolism of blue crab tissues using Phosphorus-31 Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, we discovered that only the male blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) contained a phosphorus compound with a chemical shift well separated from the expected phosphate compounds. Spectra obtained from male gills were readily differentiated from female gill spectra. Analysis from six years of data from male and female crabs documented that the sex-specificity of this metabolite was normal for this species. Microscopic analysis of male and female gills found no differences in their gill anatomy or the presence of parasites or bacteria that might produce this phosphorus compound. Analysis of a rare gynandromorph blue crab (laterally, half male and half female) proved that this sex-specificity was an intrinsic biochemical process and was not caused by any variations in the diet or habitat of male versus female crabs. The existence of a sex-specific metabolite is a previously unrecognized, but potentially significant biochemical phenomenon. An entire enzyme system has been synthesized and activated only in one sex. Unless blue crabs are a unique species, sex-specific metabolites are likely to be present in other animals. Would the presence or absence of a sex-specific metabolite affect an animal's development, anatomy and biochemistry?

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