Cracking the Enigmatic Human Y Chromosome

Category Science

tldr #

Two international teams have cracked the mysterious Y chromosome, the holdout of the human genome sequence that was first constructed two decades ago. This marks a monumental step in deciphering our genetic landscape and an important resource for analyzing Y chromosome evolution and behavior, which has been linked to various health issues. In addition, it could be a useful tool for diagnosing and treating rare genetic disorders.

content #

After over two decades, the human genome sequence is finally complete. The holdout? The Y chromosome. Although far smaller than the other 23 chromosomes, Y is a genetic contortionist, carrying multiple strange structures that are notoriously difficult to disentangle, and not for lack of effort. As one of the two sex chromosomes—X being the other—Y houses genes essential for producing sperm and for human reproduction .

Y is the smallest of the 23 chromosomes

Now, two international teams have finally cracked the enigmatic Y genetic code. Both of their papers were recently published in Nature. One paper, from the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) consortium, used state-of-the-art genetic sequencing technologies that read over 62 million base pairs (duos of DNA letters in the human Y chromosome), finally producing a reference human genome that contains all 24 chromosomes .

It contains both male and pseudoautosomal genes

Yet one male can hardly represent the diversity of our species’ genetics. Another study assembled Y chromosomes from 43 biologically male individuals spanning five continents, extensively covering most of the deepest-rooted human Y lineages. The newly-assembled dataset "provides the most comprehensive view of genetic variation…across over 180,000 years of human Y chromosome evolution," said the authors .

The first draft of the human genome was completed in the year 2000

So why should we care? For one, this marks a monumental step in deciphering our genetic landscape. Although the human genome was first sequenced two decades ago, nearly 50 percent of the Y’s genetic letters remained elusive. As sequencing and analysis methods improve we’ll likely fill in more gaps. For another, scientists now have a valuable resource for analyzing Y chromosome evolution and behavior .

The first reference human genome was made using the genome of a single male

As the weird one in the chromosomal pack it seems to have shrunk over millennia, shedding genetic material like a particularly aggressive spring cleaning. Why this happened and what its consequences were remain mysterious, leading to some speculating that Y is degenerating. The clarity and variation in the new datasets now offer a road map for further research. Fertility aside, the Y chromosome has also been linked to a number of health issues, such as bladder cancer .

Mutations on the Y chromosome have been linked to diseases such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

"Just a few years ago, half of the human Y chromosome was missing [from the reference]—the challenging, complex satellite areas," said Dr. Monika Cechova at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who worked on a full Y sequence. "Back then we didn’t even know if it could be sequenced, it was so puzzling. This is really a huge shift in what’s possible."The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Genomic GalaxyWhen scientists talk about the human genome, they usually mean a reference genome .

It contains the SRY gene, which is switched on when the embryo is XY, playing a part in male differentiation

First constructed decades ago, the first draft was a triumph. But with eight percent of DNA letters missing, it was far from perfect. The missing chunks have repercussions for diagnosis and research into some of the most troubling diseases of our time: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and other brain disorders. It also misses our ability to detect rare but devastating disorders and, in turn, use genetic editing tools to treat them .

The rise of large-scale sequencing and analysis allows scientists to hunt down groups of genes that could up our medical arsenal. On that note, the recently revealed Y chromosome could offer new insights and potential treatments into sex-linked diseases like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which is caused by a mutation on the X chromosome.

hashtags #
worddensity #