The evolution of sex differences in disease genetics

The evolution of sex differences in disease genetics
William P Gilks, Jessica K Abbott, Edward H Morrow
There are significant differences in the biology of males and females, ranging from biochemical pathways to behavioural responses, which are relevant to modern medicine. Broad-sense heritability estimates differ between the sexes for many common medical disorders, indicating that genetic architecture can be sex-dependent. Recent genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have successfully identified sex-specific and sex-biased effects, where in addition to sex-specific effects on gene expression, twenty-two medical traits have sex-specific or sex-biased loci. Sex-specific genetic architecture of complex traits is also extensively documented in model organisms using genome-wide linkage or association mapping, and in gene disruption studies. The evolutionary origins of sex-specific genetic architecture and sexual dimorphism lie in the fact that males and females share most of their genetic variation yet experience different selection pressures. At the extreme is sexual antagonism, where selection on an allele acts in opposite directions between the sexes. Sexual antagonism has been repeatedly identified via a number of experimental methods in a range of different taxa. Although the molecular basis remains to be identified, mathematical models predict the maintenance of deleterious variants that experience selection in a sex-dependent manner. There are multiple mechanisms by which sexual antagonism and alleles under sex-differential selection could contribute toward the genetics of common, complex disorders. The evidence we review clearly indicates that further research into sex-dependent selection and the sex-specific genetic architecture of diseases would be rewarding. This would be aided by studies of laboratory and wild animal populations, and by modelling sex-specific effects in genome-wide association data with joint, gene-by-sex interaction tests. We predict that even sexually monomorphic diseases may harbour cryptic sex-specific genetic architecture. Furthermore, empirical evidence suggests that investigating sex-dependent epistasis may be especially rewarding. Finally, the prevalent nature of sex-specific genetic architecture in disease offers scope for the development of more effective, sex-specific therapies.

2 thoughts on “The evolution of sex differences in disease genetics

  1. Pingback: Most viewed on Haldane’s Sieve: November 2013 | Haldane's Sieve

  2. Pingback: Author post: The evolution of sex differences in disease genetics | Haldane's Sieve

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