Classic genetic and hormonal switches during fetal sex development and beyond

Paul Martin Holterhus, Alexandra Kulle, Hauke Busch, Malte Spielmann*

*Corresponding author for this work


Critical genetic and hormonal switches characterize fetal sex development in humans. They are decisive for gonadal sex determination and subsequent differentiation of the genital and somatic sex phenotype. Only at the first glace these switches seem to behave like the dual 0 and 1 system in computer sciences and lead invariably to either typically male or female phenotypes. More recent data indicate that this model is insufficient. In addition, in case of distinct mutations, many of these switches may act variably, causing a functional continuum of alterations of gene functions and -dosages, enzymatic activities, sex hormone levels, and sex hormone sensitivity, giving rise to a broad clinical spectrum of biological differences of sex development (DSD) and potentially diversity of genital and somatic sex phenotypes. The gonadal anlage is initially a bipotential organ that can develop either into a testis or an ovary. Sex-determining region Y (SRY) is the most important upstream switch of gonadal sex determination inducing SOX9 further downstream, leading to testicular Sertoli cell differentiation and the repression of ovarian pathways. If SRY is absent (virtually "switched off"), e.g., in 46,XX females, RSPO1, WNT4, FOXL2, and other factors repress the male pathway and promote ovarian development. Testosterone and its more potent derivative, dihydrotestosterone (DHT) as well as AMH, are the most important upstream hormonal switches in phenotypic sex differentiation. Masculinization of the genitalia, i.e., external genital midline fusion forming the scrotum, growth of the genital tubercle, and Wolffian duct development, occurs in response to testosterone synthesized by steroidogenic cells in the testis. Müllerian ducts will not develop into a uterus and fallopian tubes in males due to Anti-Müllerian-Hormone (AMH) produced by the Sertoli cells. The functionality of these two hormone-dependent switches is ensured by their corresponding receptors, the intracellular androgen receptor (AR) and the transmembrane AMH type II receptor. The absence of high testosterone and high AMH is crucial for anatomically female genital development during fetal life. Recent technological advances, including single-cell and spatial transcriptomics, will likely shed more light on the nature of these molecular switches.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMedizinische Genetik
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)163-171
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 01.09.2023

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)
  • Research Area: Medical Genetics
  • Research Area: Center for Cultural Studies (ZKFL)

DFG Research Classification Scheme

  • 205-03 Human Genetics
  • 205-20 Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine


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