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The Y chromosome is one of two sex-determining chromosomes (allosomes) in mammals, including humans (the other is the X chromosome). In mammals, the Y chromosome contains the gene SRY, which triggers testicle development if present. The human Y chromosome is composed of about 50 million base pairs. DNA in the Y chromosome is passed from father to son, and Y-DNA analysis may thus be used in genealogical research. With a 30% difference between humans and chimpanzees, the Y chromosome is one of the fastest evolving parts of the human genome.
The Y chromosome was identified as a sex-determining chromosome by Nettie Stevens at Bryn Mawr College in 1905 during a study of the mealworm Tenebrio molitor. Edmund Beecher Wilson discovered the same mechanisms the same year in an independent manner. Stevens proposed that chromosomes always existed in pairs and that the Y chromosome was the pair of the X chromosome discovered in 1890 by Hermann Henking. She realized that the previous idea of Clarence Erwin McClung, that the X chromosome determines sex, was wrong and that sex determination is, in fact, due to the presence or absence of the Y chromosome. Stevens named the chromosome "Y" simply to follow on from Henking's "X" alphabetically.
The idea that the Y chromosome was named after its similarity to the letter "Y" is mistaken. All chromosomes normally appear as an amorphous blob under the microscope and only take on a well-defined shape during mitosis. This shape is vaguely X-shaped for all chromosomes. It is entirely coincidental that the Y chromosome, during mitosis, has two very short branches which can look merged under the microscope and appear as the descender of a Y-shape.
Most mammals have only one pair of sex chromosomes in each cell. Males have one Y chromosome and one X chromosome, while females have two X chromosomes. In mammals, the Y chromosome contains a gene, SRY, which triggers embryonic development as a male. The Y chromosomes of humans and other mammals also contain other genes needed for normal sperm production.
There are exceptions, however. For example, the platypus relies on an XY sex-determination system based on five pairs of chromosomes. Platypus sex chromosomes in fact appear to bear a much stronger homology (similarity) with the avian Z chromosome, and the SRY gene so central to sex-determination in most other mammals is apparently not involved in platypus sex-determination. Among humans, some men have two Xs and a Y ("XXY", see Klinefelter syndrome), or one X and two Ys (see XYY syndrome), and some women have three Xs or a single X instead of a double X ("X0", see Turner syndrome). There are other exceptions in which SRY is damaged (leading to an XY female), or copied to the X (leading to an XX male). For related phenomena, see Androgen insensitivity syndrome and Intersex.
Many ectothermic vertebrates have no sex chromosomes. If they have different sexes, sex is determined environmentally rather than genetically. For some of them, especially reptiles, sex depends on the incubation temperature; others are hermaphroditic (meaning they contain both male and female gametes in the same individual).
The X and Y chromosomes are thought to have evolved from a pair of identical chromosomes, termed autosomes, when an ancestral mammal developed an allelic variation, a so-called 'sex locus' – simply possessing this allele caused the organism to be male. The chromosome with this allele became the Y chromosome, while the other member of the pair became the X chromosome. Over time, genes which were beneficial for males and harmful to (or had no effect on) females either developed on the Y chromosome, or were acquired through the process of translocation.
Until recently, the X and Y chromosomes were thought to have diverged around 300 million years ago. However, research published in 2010, and particularly research published in 2008 documenting the sequencing of the platypus genome, has suggested that the XY sex-determination system would not have been present more than 166 million years ago, at the split of the monotremes from other mammals. This reestimation of the age of the therian XY system is based on the finding that sequences that are on the X chromosomes of marsupials and eutherian mammals are present on the autosomes of platypus and birds. The older estimate was based on erroneous reports that the platypus X chromosomes contained these sequences.
Recombination between the X and Y chromosomes proved harmful—it resulted in males without necessary genes formerly found on the Y chromosome, and females with unnecessary or even harmful genes previously only found on the Y chromosome. As a result, genes beneficial to males accumulated near the sex-determining genes, and recombination in this region was suppressed in order to preserve this male specific region. Over time, the Y chromosome changed in such a way as to inhibit the areas around the sex determining genes from recombining at all with the X chromosome. As a result of this process, 95% of the human Y chromosome is unable to recombine. Only the tips of the Y and X chromosomes recombine. The tips of the Y chromosome that could recombine with the X chromosome are referred to as the pseudoautosomal region. The rest of the Y chromosome is passed on to the next generation intact. It is because of this disregard for the rules that the Y chromosome is such a superb tool for investigating recent human evolution from a male perspective.
By one estimate, the human Y chromosome has lost 1,393 of its 1,438 original genes over the course of its existence, and linear extrapolation of this 1,393 gene loss over 300 million years gives a rate of genetic loss of 4.6 genes per million years. Continued loss of genes at the 4.6 genes per million year rate would result in a Y chromosome with no functional genes --- that is the Y chromosome would lose complete function --- within the next 10 million years, or half that time with current estimate of 160 million year age. Comparative genomic analysis, however, reveals that many mammalian species are experiencing a similar loss of function in their heterozygous sex chromosome. Degeneration may simply be the fate of all nonrecombining sex chromosomes due to three common evolutionary forces: high mutation rate, inefficient selection and genetic drift. Furthermore, comparisons of the human and chimpanzee Y chromosomes (first published in 2005) show that the human Y chromosome has not lost any genes since the divergence of humans and chimpanzees between 6–7 million years ago, and a scientific report in 2012 stated that only one gene had been lost since humans diverged from the rhesus macaque 25 million years ago. These facts provide direct evidence that the linear extrapolation model is flawed and suggest that the current human Y chromosome is either no longer shrinking or is shrinking at a much slower rate than 4.6 genes per million years estimated by the linear extrapolation model.
The human Y chromosome is particularly exposed to high mutation rates due to the environment in which it is housed. The Y chromosome is passed exclusively through sperm, which undergo multiple cell divisions during gametogenesis. Each cellular division provides further opportunity to accumulate base pair mutations. Additionally, sperm are stored in the highly oxidative environment of the testis, which encourages further mutation. These two conditions combined put the Y chromosome at a greater risk of mutation than the rest of the genome. The increased mutation risk for the Y chromosome is reported by Graves as a factor 4.8. However, her original reference obtains this number for the relative mutation rates in male and female germ lines for the lineage leading to humans.
Without the ability to recombine during meiosis, the Y chromosome is unable to expose individual alleles to natural selection. Deleterious alleles are allowed to "hitchhike" with beneficial neighbors, thus propagating maladapted alleles in to the next generation. Conversely, advantageous alleles may be selected against if they are surrounded by harmful alleles (background selection). Due to this inability to sort through its gene content, the Y chromosome is particularly prone to the accumulation of "junk" DNA. Massive accumulations of retrotransposable elements are scattered throughout the Y. The random insertion of DNA segments often disrupts encoded gene sequences and renders them nonfunctional. However, the Y chromosome has no way of weeding out these "jumping genes". Without the ability to isolate alleles, selection cannot effectively act upon them.
A clear, quantitative indication of this inefficiency is the entropy rate of the Y chromosome. Whereas all other chromosomes in the human genome have entropy rates of 1.5–1.9 bits per nucleotide (compared to the theoretical maximum of exactly 2 for no redundancy), the Y chromosome's entropy rate is only 0.84. This means the Y chromosome has a much lower information content relative to its overall length; it is more redundant.
Even if a well adapted Y chromosome manages to maintain genetic activity by avoiding mutation accumulation, there is no guarantee it will be passed down to the next generation. The population size of the Y chromosome is inherently limited to 1/4 that of autosomes: diploid organisms contain two copies of autosomal chromosomes while only half the population contains 1 Y chromosome. Thus, genetic drift is an exceptionally strong force acting upon the Y chromosome. Through sheer random assortment, an adult male may never pass on his Y chromosome if he only has female offspring. Thus, although a male may have a well adapted Y chromosome free of excessive mutation, it may never make it in to the next gene pool. The repeat random loss of well-adapted Y chromosomes, coupled with the tendency of the Y chromosome to evolve to have more deleterious mutations rather than less for reasons described above, contributes to the species-wide degeneration of Y chromosomes through Muller's ratchet.
As it has been already mentioned, the Y chromosome is unable to recombine during meiosis like the other human chromosomes; however, in 2003, researchers from MIT discovered a process which may slow down the process of degradation. They found that human Y chromosome is able to "recombine" with itself, using palindrome base pair sequences. Such a "recombination" is called gene conversion.
In the case of the Y chromosomes, the palindromes are not noncoding DNA; these strings of bases contain functioning genes important for male fertility. Most of the sequence pairs are greater than 99.97% identical. The extensive use of gene conversion may play a role in the ability of the Y chromosome to edit out genetic mistakes and maintain the integrity of the relatively few genes it carries. In other words, since the Y chromosome is single, it has duplicates of its genes on itself instead of having a second, homologous, chromosome. When errors occur, it can use other parts of itself as a template to correct them.
Findings were confirmed by comparing similar regions of the Y chromosome in humans to the Y chromosomes of chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas. The comparison demonstrated that the same phenomenon of gene conversion appeared to be at work more than 5 million years ago, when humans and the non-human primates diverged from each other.
In the terminal stages of the degeneration of the Y chromosome, other chromosomes increasingly take over genes and functions formerly associated with it. Finally, the Y chromosome disappears entirely, and a new sex-determining system arises. Several species of rodent in the sister families Muridae and Cricetidae have reached these stages, in the following ways:
Outside of the rodent family, the black muntjac, Muntiacus crinifrons, evolved new X and Y chromosomes through fusions of the ancestral sex chromosomes and autosomes. Primate Y chromosomes, including in humans, have degenerated to an extent that primates could also evolve new sex determination systems, by some estimates in about 14 million years in humans.
In humans, the Y chromosome spans about 58 million base pairs (the building blocks of DNA) and represents approximately 1% of the total DNA in a male cell. The human Y chromosome contains 86 genes, which code for only 23 distinct proteins. Traits that are inherited via the Y chromosome are called holandric traits.
The human Y chromosome is unable to recombine with the X chromosome, except for small pieces of pseudoautosomal regions at the telomeres (which comprise about 5% of the chromosome's length). These regions are relics of ancient homology between the X and Y chromosomes. The bulk of the Y chromosome which does not recombine is called the "NRY" or non-recombining region of the Y chromosome. It is the SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphism) in this region which are used for tracing direct paternal ancestral lines.
Not including pseudoautosomal genes, genes include:
Y chromosome-linked diseases can be of more common types, or very rare ones. Yet, the rare ones still have importance in understanding the function of the Y chromosome in the normal case.
No vital genes reside only on the Y chromosome, since roughly half of humans (females) do not have a Y chromosome. The only well-defined human disease linked to a defect on the Y chromosome is defective testicular development (due to deletion or deleterious mutation of SRY). However, having two X chromosomes and one Y chromosome has similar effects. On the other hand, having Y chromosome polysomy has other effects than masculinization.
Y chromosome microdeletion (YCM) is a family of genetic disorders caused by missing genes in the Y chromosome. Many affected men exhibit no symptoms and lead normal lives. However, YCM is also known to be present in a significant number of men with reduced fertility or reduced sperm count.
This results in the person presenting a female phenotype even though that person possesses an XY karyotype (i.e., is born with female-like genitalia). The lack of the second X results in infertility. In other words, viewed from the opposite direction, the person goes through defeminization but fails to complete masculinization.
The cause can be seen as an incomplete Y chromosome: the usual karyotype in these cases is 44X, plus a fragment of Y. This usually results in defective testicular development, such that the infant may or may not have fully formed male genitalia internally or externally. The full range of ambiguity of structure may occur, especially if mosaicism is present. When the Y fragment is minimal and nonfunctional, the child is usually a girl with the features of Turner syndrome or mixed gonadal dysgenesis.
Klinefelter syndrome (47, XXY) is not an aneuploidy of the Y chromosome, but a condition of having an extra X chromosome, which usually results in defective postnatal testicular function. The mechanism is not fully understood; the extra X does not seem to be due to direct interference with expression of Y genes.
47,XYY syndrome (simply known as XYY syndrome) is caused by the presence of a single extra copy of the Y chromosome in each of a male's cells. 47, XYY males have one X chromosome and two Y chromosomes, for a total of 47 chromosomes per cell. Researchers have found that an extra copy of the Y chromosome is associated with increased stature and an increased incidence of learning problems in some boys and men, but the effects are variable, often minimal, and the vast majority do not know their karyotype. When chromosome surveys were done in the mid-1960s in British secure hospitals for the developmentally disabled, a higher than expected number of patients were found to have an extra Y chromosome. The patients were mischaracterized as aggressive and criminal, so that for a while an extra Y chromosome was believed to predispose a boy to antisocial behavior (and was dubbed the "criminal karyotype"). Subsequently, in 1968 in Scotland the only ever comprehensive nationwide chromosome survey of prisons found no overrepresentation of 47,XYY men, and later studies found 47,XYY boys and men had the same rate of criminal convictions as 46,XY boys and men of equal intelligence. Thus, the "criminal karyotype" concept is inaccurate and obsolete.
The following Y chromosome-linked diseases are rare, but notable because of their elucidating of the nature of the Y chromosome.
Greater degrees of Y chromosome polysomy (having more than one extra copy of the Y chromosome in every cell, e.g., XYYY) are rare. The extra genetic material in these cases can lead to skeletal abnormalities, decreased IQ, and delayed development, but the severity features of these conditions are variable.
XX male syndrome occurs when there has been a recombination in the formation of the male gametes, causing the SRY-portion of the Y chromosome to move to the X chromosome. When such an X chromosome contributes to the child, the development will lead to a male, because of the SRY gene.
In human genetic genealogy (the application of genetics to traditional genealogy), use of the information contained in the Y chromosome is of particular interest since, unlike other genes, the Y chromosome is passed exclusively from father to son. Mitochondrial DNA, maternally inherited to both sons and daughters, is used in an analogous way to trace the maternal line.
Many groups of organisms in addition to mammals have Y chromosomes, but these Y chromosomes do not share common ancestry with mammalian Y chromosomes. Such groups include Drosophila, some other insects, some fish, some reptiles, and some plants. In Drosophila melanogaster, the Y chromosome does not trigger male development. Instead, sex is determined by the number of X chromosomes. The D. melanogaster Y chromosome does contain genes necessary for male fertility. So XXY D. melanogaster are female, and D. melanogaster with a single X (X0), are male but sterile. There are some species of Drosophila in which X0 males are both viable and fertile.
Other organisms have mirror image sex chromosomes: the female is "XY" and the male is "XX", but by convention biologists call a "female Y" a W chromosome and the other a Z chromosome. For example, female birds, snakes, and butterflies have ZW sex chromosomes, and males have ZZ sex chromosomes.