The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 62: 153 - 166 (2018)

Vol 62, Issue 1-2-3

Special Issue: The Chick Embryo Model System

Sex determination and gonadal sex differentiation in the chicken model

Published: 14 March 2018

Claire E. Hirst, Andrew T. Major and Craig A. Smith*

Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute and Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia


Our understanding of avian sex determination and gonadal development is derived primarily from the studies in the chicken. Analysis of gynandromorphic chickens and experimental chimeras indicate that sexual phenotype is at least partly cell autonomous in the chicken, with sexually dimorphic gene expression occurring in different tissue and different stages. Gonadal sex differentiation is just one of the many manifestations of sexual phenotype. As in other birds, the chicken has a ZZ male: ZW female sex chromosome system, in which the male is the homogametic sex. Most evidence favours a Z chromosome dosage mechanism underling chicken sex determination, with little evidence of a role for the W chromosome. Indeed, the W appears to harbour a small number of genes that are un-related to sexual development, but have been retained because they are dosage sensitive factors. As global Z dosage compensation is absent in birds, Z-linked genes may direct sexual development in different tissues (males having on average 1.5 to 2 times the expression level of females). In the embryonic gonads, the Z-linked DMRT1 gene plays a key role in testis development. Beyond the gonads, other combinations of Z-linked genes may govern sexual development, together with a role for sex steroid hormones. Gonadal DMRT1 is thought to activate other players in testis development, namely SOX9 and AMH, and the recently identified HEMGN gene. DMRT1 also represses ovarian pathway genes, such as FOXL2 and CYP19A1. A lower level of DMRT1 expression in the female gonads is compatible with activation of the ovarian pathway. Some outstanding questions include how the key testis and ovary genes, DMRT1 and FOXL2, are regulated. In addition, confirmation of the central role of these genes awaits genome editing approaches.


chicken, gonad, sex determination, sexual differentiation, embryonic

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