Epigenetics drive the evolution of sex chromosomes in animals and plants

Abstract

We review how epigenetics affect sex chromosome evolution in animals and plants. In a few species, sex is determined epigenetically through the action of Y-encoded small RNAs. Epigenetics is also responsible for changing the sex of individuals through time, even in species that carry sex chromosomes, and could favour species adaptation through breeding system plasticity. The Y chromosome accumulates repeats that become epigenetically silenced which leads to an epigenetic conflict with the expression of Y genes and could accelerate Y degeneration. Y heterochromatin can be lost through ageing, which activates transposable elements and lowers male longevity. Y chromosome degeneration has led to the evolution of meiotic sex chromosome inactivation in eutherians (placentals) and marsupials, and dosage compensation mechanisms in animals and plants. X-inactivation convergently evolved in eutherians and marsupials via two independently evolved non-coding RNAs. In Drosophila, male X upregulation by the male specific lethal (MSL) complex can spread to neo-X chromosomes through the transposition of transposable elements that carry an MSL-binding motif. We discuss similarities and possible differences between plants and animals and suggest future directions for this dynamic field of research. This article is part of the theme issue 'How does epigenetics influence the course of evolution?'

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