Adaptive Molecular Evolution of HINTW, a Female-Specific Gene in Birds


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Abstract

It is well established that many genes on the male-specific Y chromosome of organisms such as mammals are involved in male reproduction and may evolve rapidly because of positive selection on male reproductive traits. In contrast, very little is known about the function and evolution of W-linked genes restricted to the female genome of organisms with female heterogamety. For birds (males ZZ, females ZW), only one W-linked gene (HINTW) is sufficiently different from its Z-linked homolog to indicate a female-specific function. Here, we report that HINTW shows evidence of adaptive molecular evolution, implying strong positive selection for new functional properties in female birds. Moreover, because HINTW is expressed in the gonads of female birds just before sexual differentiation and is thus a candidate for sex determination, it suggests adaptive evolution related to female development. This provides the first example of Darwinian evolution of a gene restricted to the female genome of any organism. Given that HINTW exists in multiple copies on W, similar to some testis-specific genes amplified on mammalian Y, avian HINTW may thus potentially represent a female parallel to the organization and evolution of Y chromosome genes involved in male reproduction and development.

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