Researchers use RNA-Seq to explore the molecular basis of sexual plasticity

Teleost fishes exhibit remarkably diverse and plastic sexual developmental patterns. One of the most astonishing is the rapid socially controlled female-to-male (protogynous) sex change observed in bluehead wrasses (Thalassoma bifasciatum). Such functional sex change is widespread in marine fishes, including species of commercial importance, yet its underlying molecular basis remains poorly explored.

Researchers at the University of Otago performed RNA sequencing to characterize the transcriptomic profiles and identify genes exhibiting sex-biased expression in the brain (forebrain and midbrain) and gonads of bluehead wrasses. Functional annotation and enrichment analysis were carried out for the sex-biased genes in the gonad to detect global differences in gene products and genetic pathways between males and females.

Here, the researchers report the first transcriptomic analysis for a protogynous fish. Expression comparison between males and females reveals a large set of genes with sex-biased expression in the gonad, but relatively few such sex-biased genes in the brain. Functional annotation and enrichment analysis suggested that ovaries are mainly enriched for metabolic processes and testes for signal transduction, particularly receptors of neurotransmitters and steroid hormones. When compared to other species, many genes previously implicated in male sex determination and differentiation pathways showed conservation in their gonadal expression patterns in bluehead wrasses. However, some critical female-pathway genes (e.g., rspo1 and wnt4b) exhibited unanticipated expression patterns. In the brain, gene expression patterns suggest that local neurosteroid production and signaling likely contribute to the sex differences observed.


Gene expression patterns in the brain (right) and gonads (left). a Numbers of differentially expressed contigs between TP males (M) and females (F). b PCA plots of brain and gonadal samples (green: female, blue: TP male). c Heatmaps showing the expression of top 100 contigs in brain and gonads (ordered by average normalized read counts across the row; red: lower expression, green: higher expression; M: TP male, F: female)

Expression patterns of key sex-related genes suggest that sex-changing fish predominantly use an evolutionarily conserved genetic toolkit, but that subtle variability in the standard sex-determination regulatory network likely contributes to sexual plasticity in these fish. This study not only provides the first molecular data on a system ideally suited to explore the molecular basis of sexual plasticity and tissue re-engineering, but also sheds some light on the evolution of diverse sex determination and differentiation systems.

Liu H, Lamm MS, Rutherford K, Black MA, Godwin JR, Gemmell NJ. (2015) Large-scale transcriptome sequencing reveals novel expression patterns for key sex-related genes in a sex-changing fish. Biol Sex Differ 6:26. [article]

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