WHO | Gender and Genetics

Posted: May 31, 2015 at 6:43 pm

Genetic Components of Sex and Gender

Humans are born with 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs. The X and Y chromosomes determine a persons sex. Most women are 46XX and most men are 46XY. Research suggests, however, that in a few births per thousand some individuals will be born with a single sex chromosome (45X or 45Y) (sex monosomies) and some with three or more sex chromosomes (47XXX, 47XYY or 47XXY, etc.) (sex polysomies). In addition, some males are born 46XX due to the translocation of a tiny section of the sex determining region of the Y chromosome. Similarly some females are also born 46XY due to mutations in the Y chromosome. Clearly, there are not only females who are XX and males who are XY, but rather, there is a range of chromosome complements, hormone balances, and phenotypic variations that determine sex.

The biological differences between men and women result from two processes: sex determination and differentiation.(3) The biological process of sex determination controls whether the male or female sexual differentiation pathway will be followed. The process of biological sex differentiation (development of a given sex) involves many genetically regulated, hierarchical developmental steps. More than 95% of the Y chromosome is male-specific (4) and a single copy of the Y chromosome is able to induce testicular differentiation of the embryonic gonad. The Y chromosome acts as a dominant inducer of male phenotype and individuals having four X chromosomes and one Y chromosome (49XXXXY) are phenotypically male. (5) When a Y chromosome is present, early embryonic testes develop around the 10th week of pregnancy. In the absence of both a Y chromosome and the influence of a testis-determining factor (TDF), ovaries develop.

Gender, typically described in terms of masculinity and femininity, is a social construction that varies across different cultures and over time. (6) There are a number of cultures, for example, in which greater gender diversity exists and sex and gender are not always neatly divided along binary lines such as male and female or homosexual and heterosexual. The Berdache in North America, the faafafine (Samoan for the way of a woman) in the Pacific, and the kathoey in Thailand are all examples of different gender categories that differ from the traditional Western division of people into males and females. Further, among certain North American native communities, gender is seen more in terms of a continuum than categories, with special acknowledgement of two-spirited people who encompass both masculine and feminine qualities and characteristics. It is apparent, then, that different cultures have taken different approaches to creating gender distinctions, with more or less recognition of fluidity and complexity of gender.

Sex Chromosome Abnormalities Turner syndrome XXX Females Klinefelter Syndrome XYY Males

Typical sexual development is the result of numerous genes, and mutation in any of these genes can result in partial or complete failure of sex differentiation. These include mutations or structural anomalies of the SRY region on the Y chromosome resulting in XY gonadal dysgenesis, XX males, or XY females; defects of androgen biosynthesis or androgen receptors, and others.

Hermaphroditism Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome

The issues of gender assignment, gender verification testing, and legal definitions of gender are especially pertinent to a discussion on the ELSI of gender and genetics. These practices, however, are misnomers as they actually refer to biological sex and not gender. Such a discrepancy is highlighted by the existence of intersex individuals whose psychosexual development and gender sometimes do not match the biological sex assigned to them as infants. In this report the term sex will be used where the practice refers to biological sex and not the more social construct of gender.

Gender Assignment of Intersex Infants and Children Legal Definitions of Gender

Chromosomes are the structures that carry genes which in turn transmit hereditary characteristics from parents to offspring. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, one half of each pair inherited from each parent. The Y chromosome is small, carries few genes, and has abundant repetitive sequence, while the X chromosome is more autosome-like in form and content. (14)Despite being relatively gene-poor overall due to reduced recombination, the X and Y sex chromosomes are enriched for genes that relate to sexual development. (15)

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WHO | Gender and Genetics

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