The Genetics and Epigenetics of Sex Change in Fish

Annu Rev Anim Biosci. 2020 Feb 15;8:47-69. doi: 10.1146/annurev-animal-021419-083634. Epub 2019 Sep 16.


Fish show extraordinary sexual plasticity, changing sex naturally as part of their life cycle or reversing sex because of environmental stressors. This plasticity shows that sexual fate is not an irreversible process but the result of an ongoing tug-of-war for supremacy between male and female signaling networks. The behavioral, gonadal, and morphological changes involved in this process are well described, yet the molecular events that underpin those changes remain poorly understood. Epigenetic modifications emerge as a critical link between environmental stimuli, the onset of sex change, and subsequent maintenance of sexual phenotype. Here we synthesize current knowledge of sex change, focusing on the genetic and epigenetic processes that are likely involved in the initiation and regulation of sex change. We anticipate that better understanding of sex change in fish will shed new light on sex determination and development in vertebrates and on how environmental perturbations affect sexual fate.

Keywords: epigenetics; phenotypic plasticity; sequential hermaphroditism; sex change; sex reversal; sexual plasticity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Female
  • Fishes / genetics*
  • Fishes / physiology
  • Hermaphroditic Organisms / genetics
  • Male
  • Sex Determination Processes / genetics*
  • Sex Determination Processes / physiology