Males and females display differences in physiology, behaviour and susceptibility to many diseases. Genome-wide transcription profiling studies have uncovered large-scale sex differences in autosomal gene expression in somatic tissues that are thought to underlie such 'sexual dimorphisms'. Because males and females differ genetically mainly in their sex chromosome complement, most sex differences can be traced back to the X and Y chromosomes. Although sex hormones are usually considered the main architects of sexual dimorphisms, recent studies have demonstrated that sex chromosomes can also induce sex differences in somatic gene expression in the absence of hormonal differences. The recent discovery of epigenetic sex differences that are not hormone-induced brings us closer to understanding differences in autosomal gene expression. In this review, we discuss the insights gained from these findings and the mechanisms by which X and Y chromosomes might induce epigenetic sex differences.
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