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A freemartin or free-martin (sometimes martin heifer) is an infertile female mammal which has masculinized behavior and non-functioning ovaries. Genetically the animal is chimeric: karyotyping of a sample of cells shows XX/XY chromosomes. [The animal originates as a female (XX), but acquires the male (XY) component in utero by exchange of some cellular material from a male twin, via vascular connections between placentas.] Externally, the animal appears female, but various aspects of female reproductive development are altered due to acquisition of anti-Müllerian hormone from the male twin. Freemartinism is the normal outcome of mixed-sex twins in all cattle species that have been studied, and it also occurs occasionally in other mammals including sheep, goats and pigs.
It was hypothesized early in the 20th century that masculinizing factors travel from the male twin to the female twin through the vascular connections of the placenta because of the vascular fusion and affect the internal anatomy of the female.
Several researchers made the discovery that a freemartin results when a female fetus has its chorion fuse in the uterus with that of a male twin. The result was published in 1916 by Tandler and Keller. The discovery was made independently by American biologist Frank R. Lillie, who published it in Science in 1916. Both teams are now credited with the discovery.
In rural areas folklore often claimed this condition was not just peculiar to cattle, but extended also to human twins; this belief perpetuated for generations, as was mentioned in the writings of Bede.
In most cattle twins, the blood vessels in the chorions become interconnected, allowing blood from each twin to flow around the other. If both fetuses are the same sex this is of no significance, but if they are different, male hormones pass from the male twin to the female twin. The male hormones then masculinize the female twin, and the result is a freemartin. The degree of masculinization is greater if the fusion occurs earlier in the pregnancy – in about ten percent of cases no fusion takes place and the female remains fertile.
The male twin is largely unaffected by the fusion, although the size of the testicles may be slightly reduced. Testicle size is associated with fertility, so there may be some reduction in bull fertility.
Freemartins behave and grow in a similar way to castrated male cattle (steers).
If suspected, a test can be done to detect the presence of the male Y-chromosomes in some circulating white blood cells of the subject. Genetic testing for the Y-chromosome can be performed within days of birth and can aid in the early identification of a sterile female bovine.
A freemartin is the normal outcome of mixed twins in all cattle species which have been studied. It does not normally occur in most other mammals, though it has been recorded in sheep, goats, and pigs.
Freemartins are occasionally used in stem cell and immunology research. During fetal development cells are exchanged between the fused circulations of the bovine twins. Up to 95% of the freemartin's blood cells can be derived from those of her twin brother. Male-derived cells and their progeny can be easily visualized in the freemartin tissues, as only they contain the male Y chromosome. Thus, by analyzing these tissues, one can investigate the capacity of hematopoietic stem cells or other circulating cells to produce other tissues in addition to blood. The freemartin model allows one to analyze perfectly healthy and unmanipulated animals, without resorting to transplantation often used in stem cell research.