Sex-specific gene interactions in the patterning of insect genitalia

Dev Biol. 2011 Dec 15;360(2):369-80. doi: 10.1016/j.ydbio.2011.09.026. Epub 2011 Oct 2.


Genitalia play an important role in the life histories of insects, as in other animals. These sexually dimorphic structures evolve rapidly and derive from multiple body segments. Despite the importance of insect genitalia, descriptions of their genetic patterning have been limited to fruit flies. In this study, we report the functions, interactions and regulation of appendage patterning genes (e.g. homothorax, dachshund, and Distal-less) in two insects: the milkweed bug Oncopeltus fasciatus, and the red flour beetle Tribolium castaneum. These species differ in the anatomical complexity of their genitalia. Females of T. castaneum have a terminal ovipositor ending in short styli, while O. fasciatus have a multi-jointed subterminal ovipositor. Male O. fasciatus have a genital capsule consisting of large gonocoxopodites and claspers; T. castaneum males have relatively simple genitalia. The requirement of appendage-patterning genes in males differed between the two species: No defects were observed in T. castaneum male genitalia, and while the male claspers of O. fasciatus were affected by depletion of appendage-patterning genes, the proximal gonocoxopodite was not, suggesting a non-appendicular origin for this structure. Only the styli of the T. castaneum ovipositor were affected by RNAi depletion of appendage-patterning genes (14 genes in all). The posterior Hox genes (abdominal-A and Abdominal-B) were required for proper genital development in O. fasciatus and regulated Distal-less and homothorax similarly in both sexes. Distal-less and dachshund were regulated differently in male and female O. fasciatus. Knockdown of the sex determination gene intersex produced a partial female-to-male transformation of abdominal and genital anatomy and also resulted in abrogation of female-specific regulation of these genes. These results provide developmental genetic support for specific anatomical hypotheses of serial homology. Importantly, these gene functions and interactions describe the developmental patterning of sexually dimorphic structures that have been critical to the diversification of these species-rich insect groups.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Patterning / genetics*
  • Extremities / growth & development
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental*
  • Genes, Insect*
  • Genitalia / growth & development
  • Heteroptera / genetics*
  • Heteroptera / growth & development
  • Homeodomain Proteins / genetics*
  • Homeodomain Proteins / metabolism
  • Insect Proteins / genetics*
  • Insect Proteins / metabolism
  • Male
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Tribolium / genetics*
  • Tribolium / growth & development


  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • Insect Proteins

Associated data

  • GENBANK/AY584472
  • GENBANK/AY584473
  • GENBANK/AY584474
  • GENBANK/AY627361
  • GENBANK/AY627362
  • GENBANK/JN368475