The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/1477-7827-10-13) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
The three authors have contributed equally in all the steps of the preparation of the submitted manuscript. In particular, the bibliographical research, the compilation of the first draft and the proofreading and editing processes were undertaken by the contributing authors in a series of relevant meetings in the Department of Histology and Embryology, Medical School, Athens University, Greece. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Sex determination is a complicated process involving large-scale modifications in gene expression affecting virtually every tissue in the body. Although the evolutionary origin of sex remains controversial, there is little doubt that it has developed as a process of optimizing metabolic control, as well as developmental and reproductive functions within a given setting of limited resources and environmental pressure. Evidence from various model organisms supports the view that sex determination may occur as a result of direct environmental induction or genetic regulation. The first process has been well documented in reptiles and fish, while the second is the classic case for avian species and mammals. Both of the latter have developed a variety of sex-specific/sex-related genes, which ultimately form a complete chromosome pair (sex chromosomes/gonosomes). Interestingly, combinations of environmental and genetic mechanisms have been described among different classes of animals, thus rendering the possibility of a unidirectional continuous evolutionary process from the one type of mechanism to the other unlikely. On the other hand, common elements appear throughout the animal kingdom, with regard to a) conserved key genes and b) a central role of sex steroid control as a prerequisite for ultimately normal sex differentiation. Studies in invertebrates also indicate a role of epigenetic chromatin modification, particularly with regard to alternative splicing options. This review summarizes current evidence from research in this hot field and signifies the need for further study of both normal hormonal regulators of sexual phenotype and patterns of environmental disruption.
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