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Bioessays. 2016 Dec;38(12):1218-1226. doi: 10.1002/bies.201600093. Epub 2016 Sep 19.

Random sex determination: When developmental noise tips the sex balance.

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Department of Ecology & Evolution, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland.


Sex-determining factors are usually assumed to be either genetic or environmental. The present paper aims at drawing attention to the potential contribution of developmental noise, an important but often-neglected component of phenotypic variance. Mutual inhibitions between male and female pathways make sex a bistable equilibrium, such that random fluctuations in the expression of genes at the top of the cascade are sufficient to drive individual development toward one or the other stable state. Evolutionary modeling shows that stochastic sex determinants should resist elimination by genetic or environmental sex determinants under ecologically meaningful settings. On the empirical side, many sex-determination systems traditionally considered as environmental or polygenic actually provide evidence for large components of stochasticity. In reviewing the field, I argue that sex-determination systems should be considered within a three-ends continuum, rather than the classical two-ends continuum.


ESD; GSD; bipotential gonad; bistability; developmental noise; phenotype switching; polygenic sex determination; stochasticity

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