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Review
, 86, 167-84

The Biological Basis of Human Sexual Orientation: Is There a Role for Epigenetics?

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Review

The Biological Basis of Human Sexual Orientation: Is There a Role for Epigenetics?

Tuck C Ngun et al. Adv Genet.

Abstract

Sexual orientation is one of the largest sex differences in humans. The vast majority of the population is heterosexual, that is, they are attracted to members of the opposite sex. However, a small but significant proportion of people are bisexual or homosexual and experience attraction to members of the same sex. The origins of the phenomenon have long been the subject of scientific study. In this chapter, we will review the evidence that sexual orientation has biological underpinnings and consider the involvement of epigenetic mechanisms. We will first discuss studies that show that sexual orientation has a genetic component. These studies show that sexual orientation is more concordant in monozygotic twins than in dizygotic ones and that male sexual orientation is linked to several regions of the genome. We will then highlight findings that suggest a link between sexual orientation and epigenetic mechanisms. In particular, we will consider the case of women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). These women were exposed to high levels of testosterone in utero and have much higher rates of nonheterosexual orientation compared to non-CAH women. Studies in animal models strongly suggest that the long-term effects of hormonal exposure (such as those experienced by CAH women) are mediated by epigenetic mechanisms. We conclude by describing a hypothetical framework that unifies genetic and epigenetic explanations of sexual orientation and the continued challenges facing sexual orientation research.

Keywords: Behavioral genetics; Epigenetics; Homosexuality; Hormonal organization; Sex differences; Sexual differentiation; Sexual orientation.

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