Scientists: Male Chromosome Won't Lead to Extinction

Scientists at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts say fortunately for humans the Y chromosome is not on the verge of extinction. This is important because the Y is the chromosome that makes males. The outlook is less favorable for the chimpanzee Y chromosome.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Scientists at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, say it's fortunate for humans that the Y chromosome is not on the verge of extinction. That's because the Y is the chromosome that makes males male. The outlook is less favorable for the chimpanzee Y chromosome. NPR's Joe Palca has our report.

JOE PALCA reporting:

The Y chromosome holds a special fascination for David Page. Page is a geneticist, and now the director of the Whitehead Institute. The Y is unique among human chromosomes. All the others come in pairs, but there is no counterpart to Y.

Two years ago, Page and his colleagues produced a detailed picture of the genetic makeup of the human Y chromosome. Since then, he's been working on a similar picture of the chimpanzee Y. Page wanted to learn if anything had changed in the six million years since humans separated from chimps on the evolutionary tree. The results appear in today's issue of the journal, Nature.

Dr. DAVID PAGE (Whitehead Institute): What we found, much to our surprise, was it looked as though almost nothing had changed on the human Y chromosome during the past six million years.

PALCA: Page says the reason that's a surprise is that some have suggested the genes on the Y are disappearing. After all, when the Y first emerged as the genetic entity 300 million years ago, Page says the Y chromosome had on the order of a thousand genes. Today, it has on the order of 80. At that rate, the Y could be gone in 10 million years or so.

Dr. PAGE: If the Y is in the process of running into the ground within the next 10 million years, then surely there should be evidence that that process had been playing out during the last six million years. And, in fact, we find quite the opposite.

PALCA: On the other hand, Page says some of the genes in the chimpanzee do seem to be accumulating errors and could risk rotting away in time. Page isn't sure why this is happening, but he has a theory.

Dr. PAGE: Chimps are much more promiscuous, resulting in what can be called `sperm competition.' Multiple males mate with a female chimp in a short period of time.

PALCA: To be successful in the `sperm competition' we want Y chromosomes with good sperm-producing genes. Page says the other genes on Y may suffer as a result.

Dr. PAGE: In the chimpanzee lineage, several of these genes may have been civilian casualties of the sperm war that's really focused on the Y chromosome sperm production genes.

PALCA: Now these casualties probably don't spell big problems for male chimpanzees. Brian Charlesworth is a geneticist at the University of Edinburgh.

Mr. BRIAN CHARLESWORTH (Geneticist, University of Edinburgh): These are pretty minor effects on the fitness, not probably even easy to measure, you know, unless you've counted thousands and thousands of individuals.

PALCA: Charlesworth says many of the Y genes have counterparts on the X chromosome and, since males have both an X and a Y, the X genes can step up if the Y genes are damaged. So Charlesworth says a decaying Y probably does not mean the chimpanzee species is in trouble.

Mr. CHARLESWORTH: Not because of the--its one chromosome is in pretty severe danger of departing the world because of human activities leading to their extinction, but that's another issue.

PALCA: And not one you can blame on the Y chromosome. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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