Background and aims: Sexual dimorphism in morphology, physiology or life history traits is common in dioecious plants at reproductive maturity, but it is typically inconspicuous or absent in juveniles. Although plants of different sexes probably begin to diverge in gene expression both before their reproduction commences and before dimorphism becomes readily apparent, to our knowledge transcriptome-wide differential gene expression has yet to be demonstrated for any angiosperm species.
Methods: The present study documents differences in gene expression in both above- and below-ground tissues of early pre-reproductive individuals of the wind-pollinated dioecious annual herb, Mercurialis annua, which otherwise shows clear sexual dimorphism only at the adult stage.
Key results: Whereas males and females differed in their gene expression at the first leaf stage, sex-biased gene expression peaked just prior to, and after, flowering, as might be expected if sexual dimorphism is partly a response to differential costs of reproduction. Sex-biased genes were over-represented among putative sex-linked genes in M. annua but showed no evidence for more rapid evolution than unbiased genes.
Conclusions: Sex-biased gene expression in M. annua occurs as early as the first whorl of leaves is produced, is highly dynamic during plant development and varies substantially between vegetative tissues.
Keywords: Dioecy; plant development; sex chromosomes; sex determination; sex-biased gene expression.
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