Strong Constraint on Human Genes Escaping X-Inactivation Is Modulated by their Expression Level and Breadth in Both Sexes

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In eutherian mammals, X-linked gene expression is normalized between XX females and XY males through the process of X chromosome inactivation (XCI). XCI results in silencing of transcription from one ChrX homolog per female cell. However, approximately 25% of human ChrX genes escape XCI to some extent and exhibit biallelic expression in females. The evolutionary basis of this phenomenon is not entirely clear, but high sequence conservation of XCI escapers suggests that purifying selection may directly or indirectly drive XCI escape at these loci. One hypothesis is that this signal results from contributions to developmental and physiological sex differences, but presently there is limited evidence supporting this model in humans. Another potential driver of this signal is selection for high and/or broad gene expression in both sexes, which are strong predictors of reduced nucleotide substitution rates in mammalian genes. Here, we compared purifying selection and gene expression patterns of human XCI escapers with those of X-inactivated genes in both sexes. When we accounted for the functional status of each ChrX gene’s Y-linked homolog (or “gametolog”), we observed that XCI escapers exhibit greater degrees of purifying selection in the human lineage than X-inactivated genes, as well as higher and broader gene expression than X-inactivated genes across tissues in both sexes. These results highlight a significant role for gene expression in both sexes in driving purifying selection on XCI escapers, and emphasize these genes’ potential importance in human disease.

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