In The Field

Genetics 2010: Model sex

At the MOHB meeting this morning the topic was sex, specifically that topic sure to stir up the hornets, the differences between sexes. Nirao Shah of UCSF and Melissa Hines from the University of Cambridge talked about how hormone levels might be responsible for shaping brain differences. But Eric Vilain, who studies intersex individuals at UCLA offered some surprising takes on the differentiation in the brain as it may be shaped by epigenetics, that is environmentally influenced changes that don’t affect the sequence of the genome but alter its expression. Specifically he was looking at methylation of DNA, which marks active and inactive genes in a few dozen pairs of maternal twins discordant for sexual orientation. Tongue firmly in cheek, he referred to the field of study as “epigayomics” in his slide presentation. But the results were negative, in 34 twin pairs they found very little difference in the way genomes were methylated between gay and straight males. His group’s research confirms that as twins age their epigenetic profiles diverge more and more, but the maximum difference was very low, he said, calling the methylation patterns “exquisitely similar.”

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