Edwina Sutton and colleagues at the University of Adelaide have been busily turning female mice into males.
Their findings could improve the understanding and treatment of people with disorders of sexual development (DSD).
It all started with the accidental discovery that adding extra copies of a gene normally active during brain development can switch off female and switch on male genes.
The result is that 80% of the offspring are physically male.
“This is the first time that the brain gene Sox3, has ever been shown to change sexual development in mammals,” Sutton says.
“We are hoping we can apply what we learn to patients with disorders of sexual development. In three quarters of these patients, we don’t even understand the genetic cause of the condition. Any knowledge we gain will be an improvement.”
Despite being completely male in appearance and behaviour, these mice are sterile—they do not produce any sperm.
Sutton believes that this is because they don’t have a Y chromosome, they are genetically female but physically male.
Why does a brain gene affect sexual development?
Sutton thinks that the Sox3 gene could be an ancient switch whose function was originally sexual but which became applied to evolution in the course of evolution.
Sutton and her colleagues have applied for more funding from the Australian Research Council to help answer some of these intriguing questions.
Edwina Sutton is one of 16 early-career scientists presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal and Victorian Governments.