Background: Genomes of men and women differ in only a limited number of genes located on the sex chromosomes, whereas the transcriptome is far more sex-specific. Identification of sex-biased gene expression will contribute to understanding the molecular basis of sex-differences in complex traits and common diseases.
Results: Sex differences in the human peripheral blood transcriptome were characterized using microarrays in 5,241 subjects, accounting for menopause status and hormonal contraceptive use. Sex-specific expression was observed for 582 autosomal genes, of which 57.7% was upregulated in women (female-biased genes). Female-biased genes were enriched for several immune system GO categories, genes linked to rheumatoid arthritis (16%) and genes regulated by estrogen (18%). Male-biased genes were enriched for genes linked to renal cancer (9%). Sex-differences in gene expression were smaller in postmenopausal women, larger in women using hormonal contraceptives and not caused by sex-specific eQTLs, confirming the role of estrogen in regulating sex-biased genes.
Conclusions: This study indicates that sex-bias in gene expression is extensive and may underlie sex-differences in the prevalence of common diseases.