Sex determination in insects: variations on a common theme

Sex Dev. 2014;8(1-3):20-8. doi: 10.1159/000356458. Epub 2013 Dec 6.


Recent studies in a representative selection of holometabolous insects suggest that, despite diversity at the instructive level, the signal-relaying part of the sex-determining pathway is remarkably well conserved. In principle, it is composed of the transformer gene (tra), which acts as a common binary switch that transduces the selected sexual fate, female when ON, male when OFF, to the downstream effector doublesex(dsx) that controls overt sexual differentiation. An interesting recurrent feature is that tra is switched ON in the early zygote by maternally provisioned tra activity. Different male-determining signals evolved, which prevent maternal activation of zygotic tra to allow for male development. In some species, where lack of maternal activation leaves tra in the OFF state, novel female-determining signals were deployed to activate zygotic tra. It appears that both the instructive end of the pathway upstream of tra as well as the executive end downstream of dsx are primary targets of evolutionary divergence, while the transduction part seems less prone to changes. We propose that this is a feature shared with many other signaling cascades that regulate developmental fates.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Embryonic Development
  • Insecta / embryology
  • Insecta / physiology*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sex Determination Processes*