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Genetics. 2008 Dec;180(4):1963-81. doi: 10.1534/genetics.108.093898. Epub 2008 Oct 9.

Sexual back talk with evolutionary implications: stimulation of the Drosophila sex-determination gene sex-lethal by its target transformer.

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Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, Division of Genetics, Genomics and Development, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720-3204, USA.


We describe a surprising new regulatory relationship between two key genes of the Drosophila sex-determination gene hierarchy, Sex-lethal (Sxl) and transformer (tra). A positive autoregulatory feedback loop for Sxl was known to maintain somatic cell female identity by producing SXL-F protein to continually instruct the target gene transformer (tra) to make its feminizing product, TRA-F. We discovered the reciprocal regulatory effect by studying genetically sensitized females: TRA-F from either maternal or zygotic tra expression stimulates Sxl-positive autoregulation. We found female-specific tra mRNA in eggs as predicted by this tra maternal effect, but not predicted by the prevailing view that tra has no germline function. TRA-F stimulation of Sxl seems to be direct at some point, since Sxl harbors highly conserved predicted TRA-F binding sites. Nevertheless, TRA-F stimulation of Sxl autoregulation in the gonadal soma also appears to have a cell-nonautonomous aspect, unprecedented for somatic Sxl regulation. This tra-Sxl retrograde regulatory circuit has evolutionary implications. In some Diptera, tra occupies Sxl's position as the gene that epigenetically maintains female identity through direct positive feedback on pre-mRNA splicing. The tra-mediated Sxl feedback in Drosophila may be a vestige of regulatory redundancy that facilitated the evolutionary transition from tra to Sxl as the master sex switch.

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