- CEFE, CNRS, Montpellier, France
Evolutionary stasis of the pseudoautosomal boundary in strepsirrhine primates
Studying genetic antagonisms as drivers of genome evolution
Sex chromosomes are special in the genome because they are often highly differentiated over much of their lengths and marked by degenerative evolution of their gene content. Understanding why sex chromosomes differentiate requires deciphering the forces driving their recombination patterns. Suppression of recombination may be subject to selection, notably because of functional effects of locking together variation at different traits, as well as longer-term consequences of the inefficient purge of deleterious mutations, both of which may contribute to patterns of differentiation . As an example, male and female functions may reveal intrinsic antagonisms over the optimal genotypes at certain genes or certain combinations of interacting genes. As a result, selection may favour the recruitment of rearrangements blocking recombination and maintaining the association of sex-antagonistic allele combinations with the sex-determining locus.
The hypothesis that sexually antagonistic selection might drive recombination suppression along the sex chromosomes is not new, but there are surprisingly few studies examining this empirically . Support mainly comes from the study of guppy populations Poecilia reticulata in which the level of sexual dimorphism (notably due to male ornaments, subject to sexual selection) varies among populations, and was found to correlate with the length of the non-recombining region on the sex chromosome . But the link is not always that clear. For instance in the fungus Microbotryum violaceum, the mating type loci is characterized by adjacent segments with recombination suppression, despite the near absence of functional differentiation between mating types .
In this study, Shearn and colleagues  explore the patterns of recombination suppression on the sex chromosomes of primates. X and Y chromosomes are strongly differentiated, except in a small region where they recombine with each other, the pseudoautosomal region (PAR). In the clade of apes and monkeys, including humans, large rearrangements have extended the non recombining region stepwise, eroding the PAR. Could this be driven by sexually antagonistic selection in a clade showing strong sexual differentiation?
To evaluate this idea, Shearn et al. have compared the structure of recombination in apes and monkeys to their sister clade with lower levels of sexual dimorphism, the lemurs and the lorises. If sexual antagonism was important in shaping recombination suppression, and assuming lower measures of sexual dimorphism reflect lower sexual antagonism , then lemurs and lorises would be predicted to show a shorter non-recombining region than apes and monkeys.
Lemurs and lorises were terra incognita in terms of genomic research on the sex chromosomes, so Shearn et al. have sequenced the genomes of males and females of different species. To assess whether sequences came from a recombining or non-recombining segment, they used coverage information in males vs females to identify sequences on the X whose copy on the Y is absent or too divergent to map, indicating long-term differentiation (absence of recombination). This approach reveals that the two lineages have undergone different recombination dynamics since they split from their common ancestor: regions which have undergone further structural rearrangements extending the non-recombining region in apes and monkeys, have continued to recombine normally in lemurs and lorises. Consistent with the prediction, macroevolutionary variation in the differentiation of males and females is indeed accompanied by variation in the size of the non-recombining region on the sex chromosome.
Sex chromosomes are excellent examples of how genomes are shaped by selection. By directly exploring recombination patterns on the sex chromosome across all extant primate groups, this study comes as a nice addition to the short series of empirical studies evaluating whether sexual antagonism may drive certain aspects of genome structure. The sexual selection causing sometimes spectacular morphological or behavioural differences between sexes in many animals may be the visible tip of the iceberg of all the antagonisms that characterise male vs. female functions generally . Further research should bring insight into how different flavours or intensities of antagonistic selection can contribute to shape genome variation.
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