Sex-specific modulation of gene expression networks in murine hypothalamus

Front Neurosci. 2012 May 11;6:63. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2012.00063. eCollection 2012.


The hypothalamus contains nuclei and cell populations that are critical in reproduction and that differ significantly between the sexes in structure and function. To examine the molecular and genetic basis for these differences, we quantified gene expression in the hypothalamus of 39 pairs of adult male and female mice belonging to the BXD strains. This experimental design enabled us to define hypothalamic gene coexpression networks and provided robust estimates of absolute expression differences. As expected, sex has the strongest effect on the expression of genes on the X and Y chromosomes (e.g., Uty, Xist, Kdm6a). Transcripts associated with the endocrine system and neuropeptide signaling also differ significantly. Sex-differentiated transcripts often have well delimited expression within specific hypothalamic nuclei that have roles in reproduction. For instance, the estrogen receptor (Esr1) and neurokinin B (Tac2) genes have intense expression in the medial preoptic and arcuate nuclei and comparatively high expression in females. Despite the strong effect of sex on single transcripts, the global pattern of covariance among transcripts is well preserved, and consequently, males and females have well matched coexpression modules. However, there are sex-specific hub genes in functionally equivalent modules. For example, only in males is the Y-linked gene, Uty, a highly connected transcript in a network that regulates chromatin modification and gene transcription. In females, the X chromosome paralog, Kdm6a, takes the place of Uty in the same network. We also find significant effect of sex on genetic regulation and the same network in males and females can be associated with markedly different regulatory loci. With the exception of a few sex-specific modules, our analysis reveals a system in which sets of functionally related transcripts are organized into stable sex-independent networks that are controlled at a higher level by sex-specific modulators.

Keywords: eQTL; hypothalamus; sex-specificity; weighted gene coexpression networks.