Genetic networks and epigenetic mechanisms of temperature-dependent sex determination in the red-eared slider turtle, Trachemys scripta
In the red-eared slider turtle, Trachemys scripta, gonadal sex is determined by the incubation temperature during the mid-trimester of development; temperature effects can be overridden by exogenous ligands if they are administered during the temperature-sensitive period of development. How the physical signal of temperature is transduced into a biological signal that ultimately results in determining gonad sex is not known. My thesis research focuses on five candidate sex determining genes: cyp19a1 (aromatase), Forkhead box protein L2, R-spondin1, Doublesex mab3-related transcription factor 1, and Sex-determining Region on Y chromosome-box 9. The first three genes are markers of ovarian differentiation while the latter two genes are markers of testicular differentiation. Both in ovo (egg) and in vitro (gonadal explants) studies were conducted. Chapters 1 and 2 examine how exogenous steroid ligands interact with candidate genes as the gonads differentiate into testes or ovaries. Topical application of testosterone with aromatase inhibitor to eggs incubating at the female-producing temperature (31 ºC; FPT) suppresses expression of ovarian markers while increasing expression of testicular markers. Administration of 17β-estradiol (E2) to eggs incubating at a male-producing temperature (26 ºC; MPT) increases expression of ovarian markers while testicular markers are suppressed. This suggests that exogenous ligands modify gonadal trajectory by re-directing (suppression and activation) the expression of candidate genes. Chapter 3 identifies the gonad-specific promoter and the temperature-dependent DNA methylation signatures of the aromatase gene during gonadal differentiation. DNA methylation of the aromatase promoter is lowest at FPT relative to MPT. Exogenous E2 and certain polychlorinated biphenyls retain typical methylation patterns observed at MPT (Chapter 4). This suggests that despite the ability of exogenous ligands to alter the transcriptional profiles and gonad phenotypes, the MPT set the temperature typical epigenetic marks first at the beginning of TSP. Recruitment of modified histone proteins, H3K4me3 and H3K27me3, at the aromatase promoter is FPT-specific during gonad determination. Temperature shift experiments suggest a lack of histone enrichment is due to MPT cue, but is not reversible by FPT. Preliminary analysis of modified histones by Next-generation sequencing shows high duplication levels across samples, leaving room for technical improvement in future study.