IX The Reproductive System

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52 Sexual Differentiation
Ervin E. Jones Alan H. DeCherney

One of nature's primary goals is perpetuation of the species. All living organisms must reproduce in some manner. Nature also favors those species that are able to produce diversification among members, an attribute critical to species survival as the nature of environmental (and other) stresses changes through time. One solution to this problem is sexual differentiation, that is, the evolution of two sexually dissimilar individuals belonging to the same species, one male and one female, and each equipped with its own specific attributes necessary for its particular contribution to the process of procreation. Each sex produces its own type of sex cell (gamete), and the union of male and female gametes generates species-specific progeny. In addition, mechanisms, some simple, some complex, have evolved to ensure the proximity and union of the sex cells (syngamy). Thus, within each species, the relevant sexual characteristics of each partner have adapted differently to achieve the most efficient union of these progenitor cells. These differences between the sexes of one species are called sexual dimorphism. For example, oviparous species such as frogs release their eggs into a liquid medium only when in relative proximity to sperm. As effective as this approach is, it also typifies the wastefulness of reproduction among higher species inasmuch as most gametes go unfertilized. Definitions of Sex and Gender Even among species that normally reproduce sexually, sexual dimorphism is not universal. For example, monoecious (i.e., hermaphroditic) species, such as cestodes and nematodes, have the capacity to produce both sperms and eggs. By definition, the ability to produce just one kind of gamete depends on sexually dimorphic differentiation. Throughout evolution, conservation and expression of genes involved in the perpetuation of a species have clearly followed a process of "adaptation": an advantageous change in structure or function of an organ or tissue to meet the challenges of new conditions. Higher mammals normally have a single pair of sex chromosomes that are morphologically distinguishable from other chromosomes, the autosomes. Each of the sex chromosomes carries genetic information that determines the primary and secondary sexual characteristics of an individual, that is, whether the individual functions and appears as male or female. It has also become abundantly clear that genes determine gender, sexual expression, and as a result, mechanisms and patterns of reproduction.
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The functional and spatial organization of all organ systems during development is genetically determined. Thus, the sex of the gonad is genetically programmed: will a female gonad (ovary) or a male gonad (testis) develop? Although germ cells of the early embryonic gonad are totipotent, these cells develop into female gametes (ova) if the gonad becomes an ovary but develop into male gametes (sperm) if the gonad becomes a testis. These two anatomically and functionally distinct gonads determine either "maleness" or "femaleness" and dictate the development of both primary and secondary sexual characteristics, as well as their function during adulthood. Endocrine and paracrine modulators that are specific for either the ovary or the testis are primarily responsible for female or male sexual differentiation and behavior and, therefore, the individual's role in procreation.
Printed from STUDENT CONSULT: Medical Physiology (on 28 August 2006) © 2006 Elsevier

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