Meiotic pairing constraints and the activity of sex chromosomes

Eva Jablonka, Marion J. Lamb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The state of activity and condensation of the sex chromosomes in gametocytes is frequently different from that found in somatic cells. For example, whereas the X chromosomes of XY males are euchromatic and active in somatic cells, they are usually condensed and inactive at the onset of meiosis; in the somatic cells of female mammals, one X chromosome is heterochromatic and inactive, but both X chromosomes are euchromatic and active early in meiosis. In species in which the female is the heterogametic sex (ZZ males and ZW females), the W chromosome, which is often seen as a condensed chromatin body in somatic cells, becomes euchromatic in early oocytes. We describe an hypothesis which can explain these changes in the activity and condensation of sex chromosomes in gametocytes. It is based on the fact that normal chromosome pairing seems to be essential for the survival of sex cells; chromosomal anomalies resulting in incomplete pairing during meiosis usually result in gametogenic loss. We argue that the changes seen in the sex chromosomes reflect the need to avoid pairing failure during meiosis. Pairing normally requires structural and conformational homology of the two chromosomes, but when the chromosomes are heteromorphic, the problem of pairing failure in the differential regions is avoided when these regions become heterochromatinized. This hypothesis provides an explanation for the changes found in gametocytes both in species with male heterogamety and those with female heterogamety. It also suggests possible reasons for the frequent origin of large supernumerary chromosomes from sex chromosomes, and for the reported lack of dosage compensation in species with female heterogamety.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-36
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 7 Jul 1988
Externally publishedYes


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