Background: The probable influence of genes and the environment on sex determination in Nile tilapia suggests that it should be regarded as a complex trait. Detection of sex determination genes in tilapia has both scientific and commercial importance. The main objective was to detect genes and microRNAs that were differentially expressed by gender in early embryonic development.
Results: Artificial fertilization of Oreochromis niloticus XX females with either sex-reversed ΔXX males or genetically-modified YY 'supermales' resulted in all-female and all-male embryos, respectively. RNA of pools of all-female and all-male embryos at 2, 5 and 9 dpf were used as template for a custom Agilent eArray hybridization and next generation sequencing. Fifty-nine genes differentially expressed between genders were identified by a false discovery rate of p < 0.05. The most overexpressed genes were amh and tspan8 in males, and cr/20β-hsd, gpa33, rtn4ipl and zp3 in females (p < 1 × 10-9). Validation of gene expression using qPCR in embryos and gonads indicated copy number variation in tspan8, gpa33, cr/20β-hsd and amh. Sequencing of amh identified a male-specific duplication of this gene, denoted amhy, differing from the sequence of amh by a 233 bp deletion on exonVII, hence lacking the capability to encode the protein motif that binds to the transforming growth factor beta receptor (TGF-β domain). amh and amhy segregated in the mapping family in full concordance with SD-linked marker on LG23 signifying the QTL for SD. We discovered 831 microRNAs in tilapia embryos of which nine had sexually dimorphic expression patterns by a false discovery rate of p < 0.05. An up-regulated microRNA in males, pma-mir-4585, was characterized with all six predicted target genes including cr/20β-hsd, down-regulated in males.
Conclusions: This study reports the first discovery of sexually differentially expressed genes and microRNAs at a very early stage of tilapia embryonic development, i.e. from 2 dpf. Genes with sexually differential expression patterns are enriched for copy number variation. A novel male-specific duplication of amh, denoted amhy, lacking the TGF-β domain was identified and mapped to the QTL region on LG23 for SD, thus indicating its potential role in SD.