Males owe their existence to a stubby piece of genetic material known as the Y chromosome, which controls the function of the sexual organs and other sex-related characteristics. However, a new study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that this male chromosome may have a much wider role to play in a gentleman’s anatomy by regulating countless cellular processes throughout the body.
Based on their findings, the study authors say that the Y chromosome may hold the answers to some of the unexplained biological differences between men and women, such as why certain illnesses tend to affect one sex more severely than the other.
With the exception of sperm and ova, every human cell contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, which collectively store the entirety of a person’s DNA. This includes one pair of sex chromosomes, which is made up of two X chromosomes in females and one X and one Y chromosome in males. Despite the fact that the genes contained within the Y chromosome are present in all cells within a man’s body, the role that they play outside of the sexual organs has until now remained poorly understood.
To investigate, the study authors genetically modified male mice to lack one of the genes on their Y chromosome and observed the effect that this had on the functionality of cells throughout their body. What they noticed was a striking alteration in cellular activity in the rodents’ heart tissue, resulting in significant changes in cardiac function and health.
For instance, proteins involved in the maintenance of membranes around structures like mitochondria – which generate energy for use by cells – were altered in the heart as a result of this tweak to the animals’ Y chromosome. The ability of cardiac cells to respond to fatty acids was also affected by this adjustment, suggesting that the genes on the Y chromosome may play a crucial role in heart disease in males.
“Our discovery provides a better understanding of how male genes on the Y chromosome allow male cells to function differently from female cells," explained study author Christian Deschepper in a statement.
“In the future, these results could help to shed some light on why some diseases occur differently in men and women.”
The researchers were also surprised to observe that the deletion of one gene on the Y chromosome had a direct impact on the expression of neighboring genes, suggesting that the various genes on this chromosome may work together as a unit rather than individually.
Much more research is needed in order to fully extrapolate the function of the Y chromosome in males, although this finding has already led to speculation that this chromosome may somehow be responsible for the increased susceptibility of males to Covid-19. Whether or not that truly is the case, only time and more research will tell.