Two recent studies in April 2014 in the journal Nature (from Washington University/MIT and the from Switzerland) summarized in this NY Times editorial, highlight the importance of the Y chromosome not only in sperm production and gender determination for men. The groups sequenced and compared the Y chromosome in 8 types of mammals including humans (which had been previously technically difficult to sequence due to many repeats of genetic code). Because Y-linked genes are active throughout the body’s cells, they may actually contribute to differences in disease susceptibility between men and women. By comparing the human Y chromosome with the chimpanzee for example, the researchers identified that the human Y has lost only one ancestral gene during the past 25 million years and since then has stabilized with an “elite bunch of genes” of which there are 12 in humans proving very important for male survival. Of course, more study is needed in the future to uncover the exact role of this small group of genes on the Y chromosome. One thing is for sure though: the Y chromosome, although small by chromosome standards, is certainly very important for men, even more important than originally thought.
–Matthew Wosnitzer, M.D.
April 24, 2014