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Hongshi Yu, Andrew J Pask, Yanqiu Hu, Geoff Shaw and Marilyn B Renfree

The X-linked aristaless gene, ARX, is essential for the development of the gonads, forebrain, olfactory bulb, pancreas, and skeletal muscle in mice and humans. Mutations cause neurological diseases, often accompanied by ambiguous genitalia. There are a disproportionately high number of testis and brain genes on the human and mouse X chromosomes. It is still unknown whether the X chromosome accrued these genes during its evolution or whether genes that find themselves on the X chromosome evolve such roles. ARX was originally autosomal in mammals and remains so in marsupials, whereas in eutherian mammals it translocated to the X chromosome. In this study, we examined autosomal ARX in tammars and compared it with the X-linked Arx in mice. We detected ARX mRNA in the neural cells of the forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain, and olfactory bulbs in developing tammars, consistent with the expression in mice. ARX was detected by RT-PCR and mRNA in situ hybridization in the developing tammar wallaby gonads of both sexes, suggestive of a role in sexual development as in mice. We also detected ARX/Arx mRNA in the adult testis in both tammars and mice, suggesting a potential novel role for ARX/Arx in spermiogenesis. ARX transcripts were predominantly observed in round spermatids. Arx mRNA localization distributions in the mouse adult testis suggest that it escaped meiotic sex chromosome inactivation during spermatogenesis. Our findings suggest that ARX in the therian mammal ancestor already played a role in male reproduction before it was recruited to the X chromosome in eutherians.

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Marilyn B Renfree, Eleanor I Ager, Geoff Shaw and Andrew J Pask

Genomic imprinting is a widespread epigenetic phenomenon in eutherian mammals, which regulates many aspects of growth and development. Parental conflict over the degree of maternal nutrient transfer is the favoured hypothesis for the evolution of imprinting. Marsupials, like eutherian mammals, are viviparous but deliver an altricial young after a short gestation supported by a fully functional placenta, so can shed light on the evolution and time of acquisition of genomic imprinting. All orthologues of eutherian imprinted genes examined have a conserved expression in the marsupial placenta regardless of their imprint status. Differentially methylated regions (DMRs) are the most common mechanism controlling genomic imprinting in eutherian mammals, but none were found in the marsupial imprinted orthologues of IGF2 receptor (IGF2R), INS or mesoderm-specific transcript (MEST). Instead, histone modification appears to be the mechanism used to silence these genes. At least three genes in marsupials have DMRs: H19, IGF2 and PEG10. PEG10 is particularly interesting as it is derived from a retrotransposon, providing the first direct evidence that retrotransposon insertion can drive the evolution of an imprinted region and of a DMR in mammals. The insertion occurred after the prototherian–therian mammal divergence, suggesting that there may have been strong selection for the retention of imprinted regions that arose during the evolution of placentation. There is currently no evidence for genomic imprinting in the egg-laying monotreme mammals. However, since these mammals do have a short-lived placenta, imprinting appears to be correlated with viviparity but not placentation.

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Natalie E Calatayud, Andrew J Pask, Geoffrey Shaw, Nadine M Richings, Sue Osborn and Marilyn B Renfree

Oestrogen has wide ranging effects in development mediated mainly via the two oestrogen receptors, α (ESR1, also known as ERα) and β (ESR2, also known as ERβ). Oestrogen is the key factor that directs the indifferent gonad to become an ovary in many non-mammalian vertebrates. Oestrogen is not required for early ovarian differentiation in mammals but can disrupt normal testicular development in eutherians. Surprisingly, exogenous oestrogen can cause sex reversal of an XY gonad in two marsupials, the North American opossum and the tammar wallaby. To understand the mechanism by which oestrogen induces sex reversal, we characterised the genes for ESR1 and ESR2 and examined their expression during gonadal differentiation in the tammar wallaby, Macropus eugenii. Both receptors were expressed in the somatic cells and germ cells of the indifferent gonad in both XX and XY foetuses throughout all stages of development, and persisted in these cells into adulthood. ERs were also present in many other tissues including kidney, pituitary and mammary gland. ER mRNA was not significantly altered by exogenous oestrogen in cultured XY gonads but the receptors translocated to the nucleus in its presence. These findings confirm that there is conserved expression of the ERs in the indifferent gonad despite the lack of available ligand during early gonadal development. The receptors can respond to exogenous estrogen at this early stage and are capable of transducing signals in the early mammalian gonad. However, the selective forces that maintained conserved ER expression in this tissue remain unknown.

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Yanqiu Hu, Hongshi Yu, Andrew J Pask, Deborah A O'Brien, Geoff Shaw and Marilyn B Renfree

A-kinase anchor protein 4 (AKAP4) is an X-linked member of the AKAP family of scaffold proteins that anchor cAMP-dependent protein kinases and play an essential role in fibrous sheath assembly during spermatogenesis and flagellar function in spermatozoa. Marsupial spermatozoa differ in structural organization from those of eutherian mammals but data on the molecular control of their structure and function are limited. We therefore cloned and characterized the AKAP4 gene in a marsupial, the tammar wallaby (Macropus eugenii). The gene structure, sequence, and predicted protein of AKAP4 were highly conserved with that of eutherian orthologues and it mapped to the marsupial X-chromosome. There was no AKAP4 expression detected in the developing young. In the adult, AKAP4 expression was limited to the testis with a major transcript of 2.9 kb. AKAP4 mRNA was expressed in the cytoplasm of round and elongated spermatids while its protein was found on the principal piece of the flagellum in the sperm tail. This is consistent with its expression in other mammals. Thus, AKAP4 appears to have a conserved role in spermatogenesis for at least the last 166 million years of mammalian evolution.

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Yu Chen, Hongshi Yu, Andrew J Pask, Asao Fujiyama, Yutaka Suzuki, Sumio Sugano, Geoff Shaw and Marilyn B Renfree

The development of the mammalian phallus involves hormone-dependent mesenchymal–epithelial signalling mechanisms that contribute to urethral closure and regulation of phallus elongation and growth. In marsupials, most differentiation and growth of the phallus occurs post-natally, making them amenable to direct hormone treatment. Expression of IGFs, FGFs, EFNB2, MAFB, DLX5 and AP-1 mRNAs in the phallus at day 50 post-partum (pp) were altered after treatment of tammar wallaby young from day 20 to 40 pp with androgen, oestrogen or after castration at day 25 pp. However, the most interesting changes occurred in the IGF pathway genes. Androgen treatment upregulated IGF1 in female phalluses and oestrogen treatment upregulated IGF1 in male phalluses, but it was downregulated by castration. IGFBP3 was higher in female phalluses and downregulated by androgen. IGF1 expression was higher in all untreated male than in female phalluses from day 50 to 150 pp, but IGFBP3 had the reverse pattern. At day 90 pp, when urethral closure in males is progressing and male phallus growth is accelerating. IGF1 and PCNA protein were only detected in the male urorectal septum, suggesting for the first time that closure and elongation may involve IGF1 activation of cell proliferation specifically in male phalluses. These effects of sex steroids on gene expression and on the IGF1 signalling pathway in particular, suggest that the developing phallus may be especially susceptible to perturbation by exogenous hormones.