Primary sex determination of placental mammals: a modelling study uncovers dynamical developmental constraints in the formation of Sertoli and granulosa cells

BMC Syst Biol. 2016 May 26;10(1):37. doi: 10.1186/s12918-016-0282-3.


Background: Primary sex determination in placental mammals is a very well studied developmental process. Here, we aim to investigate the currently established scenario and to assess its adequacy to fully recover the observed phenotypes, in the wild type and perturbed situations. Computational modelling allows clarifying network dynamics, elucidating crucial temporal constrains as well as interplay between core regulatory modules.

Results: Relying on a comprehensive revision of the literature, we define a logical model that integrates the current knowledge of the regulatory network controlling this developmental process. Our analysis indicates the necessity for some genes to operate at distinct functional thresholds and for specific developmental conditions to ensure the reproducibility of the sexual pathways followed by bi-potential gonads developing into either testes or ovaries. Our model thus allows studying the dynamics of wild type and mutant XX and XY gonads. Furthermore, the model analysis reveals that the gonad sexual fate results from the operation of two sub-networks associated respectively with an initiation and a maintenance phases. At the core of the process is the resolution of two connected feedback loops: the mutual inhibition of Sox9 and ß-catenin at the initiation phase, which in turn affects the mutual inhibition between Dmrt1 and Foxl2, at the maintenance phase. Three developmental signals related to the temporal activity of those sub-networks are required: a signal that determines Sry activation, marking the beginning of the initiation phase, and two further signals that define the transition from the initiation to the maintenance phases, by inhibiting the Wnt4 signalling pathway on the one hand, and by activating Foxl2 on the other hand.

Conclusions: Our model reproduces a wide range of experimental data reported for the development of wild type and mutant gonads. It also provides a formal support to crucial aspects of the gonad sexual development and predicts gonadal phenotypes for mutations not tested yet.

Keywords: Gene regulatory network; Logical modelling; Placental mammals; Primary sex determination.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Female
  • Granulosa Cells / cytology*
  • Male
  • Mammals / genetics*
  • Mammals / growth & development*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Mutation
  • Placenta*
  • Pregnancy
  • Sertoli Cells / cytology*
  • Sex Determination Processes*