Even a chimp can write code

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The End of Men?

If you thought men were essential for the future of the human species, you have another thing coming. The X and Y chromosomes evolved from a pair of autosomes. The Y chromosome acquired a male-determining locus and genes for spermatogenesis but over millenia, the Y has begun to lose gene function. Some researchers have suggested that the Y chromosome may further degenerate and one day disappear altogether.

Each of our cells contains 23 pairs of chromosomes. Twenty-two of those pairs are matched pairs, shared by men and women. The 23rd is different. In women, this 23rd pair is made up of two X chromosomes; in men, an X and a Y chromosome. Jenny Graves of the Australian National University says the human Y chromosome once boasted 1438 genes although now a mere 41 genes remain. With cell division, mistakes in genes tend to creep in. With redundant genes (as is the case in matching pairs), the correct gene can be obtained from the other chromosome. Well, mistakes have creeped into the Y as well but the lonely bugger can't get a break. Take sea turtles: their males do not have a Y chromosome anymore, rather the temperature of the environment around the eggs determines their sex. Hmm, I say to myself, it is possible. It sure doesn't feel so swell to be a man today.

Thankfully there is another band of researchers that is singing from a different hymn book. They theorize that the Y has found some ingenious ways to correct its decline. Their recent findings from sequencing the human genome are a ray of hope for men. Like prudent techies (and unlike some accounting companies), the human Y chromosome may be creating backups of important genes. The Y chromosome has areas that are duplicated elsewhere on the chromosome as palindromes [Black Sabbath's Live Evil comes to mind] and so it is believed that the Y may be able to recombine with itself to repair critical areas. This suggests that the Y chromosome does have pairs, though only in a subtle way. Woo-hoo! Time to keep that chin up, muchacho.

Won't lovers revolt now?

[Sources: NPR, Univ. of Miami, Xinhua]

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