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Eggs or Sperm – A genetic switch decides this, says scientists

Biologists from Japan’s National Institute for Basic Biology have discovered that germ cells in the human body can transform into egg or sperm where they believe a genetic switch decides on this crucial stage in life. The research was published in the journal Science on Thursday.


Japanese rice fish or Medaka (Oryzias latipes) were used to find the gene called ‘foxl3,’ required for reproductive systems.  The gene decides the later stages of a germ cell that would end up as a perm or an egg. Specifically, the gene is more active in female’s germ cells as they stop them from becoming sperm cells, and aid them in becoming cells in the ovaries.

“This sexual switch that is present in the germ cells in independent of the body’s sex is an entirely new finding,” said biologist Toshiya Nishimura.

Scientists employed a method called ‘sexual switch’ where the gene is inactivated in the female fish. The result was that the germ cells turned into sperm in the fish’s ovaries rather than eggs. The healthy sperm cells fertilized the egg cells, and created healthy progeny. Minoru Tanaka of the National Institute of Natural Sciences, said that this is the first time switch mechanism has been detected in vertebrates that can decide whether the germ cell can become an egg or sperm which is ultimately significant.

Biologists now believe that germ cells remain passive and are being controlled by other processes and cells in the body. The breakthrough discovery reveals that sexual switch is not dictated by the body’s sex. Apparently, female fish can produce male reproductive cells in less time than males in the wild. This will help commercial fisheries to grow females, and produce sperm from reproduction. Though foxl3 gene is not present in humans, researchers believe that a similar genetic code can allow to carry out similar process.

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