How male mosquitoes compensate for having only one X chromosome


The research group of Dr Claudia Keller Valsecchi (Institute of Molecular Biology, Mainz, Germany) and their collaborators have discovered the master regulator responsible for balancing the expression of X chromosome genes between males and females in the malaria mosquito. This discovery helps scientists to better understand the evolution of the epigenetic mechanisms responsible for equalising gene expression between the sexes. The findings may contribute to the development of new ways to prevent the spread of malaria.

Most people would agree that mosquitoes are among the most annoying species on the planet. They keep us up all night with their whining, whirring wings, all while seeking a way to bite us and suck our blood. Yet mosquitoes are more than just a nuisance – they can also carry a whole host of serious, sometimes deadly diseases.

One of the most dangerous diseases that mosquitoes can carry is malaria, a disease that affects millions of people and causes hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, primarily in African countries. Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites, which are spread through mosquito bites – specifically those of marsh mosquitoes (Anopheles).

Importantly, only female mosquitoes bite, as they need the nutrients from blood to produce eggs. Scientists are therefore interested in understanding the mechanisms responsible for the molecular differences between male and female mosquitoes, as it could help us develop new ways to combat malaria.

Just like humans, the sex of a mosquito is determined by the sex chromosomes: females have two X chromosomes (XX), while males have an X and a Y chromosome (XY). This can be problematic, as males have only half the number of X chromosome genes as females, and hence would have only half the amount of proteins from the X chromosome. To compensate for this, there must be a way to increase the expression of X chromosome genes in males. However, no one knew what this mechanism could be in mosquitoes.

Agata Kalita from Claudia’s group, who is the first author of the study and funded by a fellowship from the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds (BIF), spearheaded the research. They collaborated with the groups of Dr M. Felicia Basilicata (University Medical Center Mainz), Dr Eric Marois (University of Strasbourg, France) and Prof. Franjo Weissing (University of Groningen, The Netherlands). Together, the researchers discovered that the protein SOA (sex chromosome activation) is the key regulator that balances X chromosome gene expression in male mosquitoes. They found that SOA works by binding to X chromosome genes and increasing their expression, but only in males. Female mosquitoes, on the other hand, only produce a small amount of very short, non-functional SOA.

Agata comments on the study: “Balancing gene expression on sex chromosomes is essential for development in some species. However, others do not have such a mechanism at all. Unexpectedly, we discovered that in mosquitoes, balancing X chromosome expression by SOA is not necessary for development, but it does give males a head start”. Claudia says, “This is an important clue as to how the mechanisms that balance gene expression on sex chromosomes may have evolved in the first place”. M. Felicia Basilicata, a joint senior author, adds “Understanding the molecular principles acting on sex chromosomes will help us to understand differences between males and females in various human pathologies”.

The groups’ findings, which were published in the journal Nature, mark a major step forward in our understanding of how gene expression is balanced on the sex chromosomes. The researchers speculate that manipulating genes that exclusively affect one sex could be a useful strategy for reducing the number of blood-sucking female mosquitoes, which would be a huge boon in the fight against malaria.

For her part in the study, Agata was given an honourable mention for the International Birnstiel Award for Doctoral Research in Molecular Life Sciences 2023.

Further details

Further information can be found at www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-06641-0



Claudia Keller Valsecchi is a Group Leader at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB). Further information about research in the Keller Valsecchi lab can be found at www.imb.de/keller-valsecchi.

About the Institute of Molecular Biology gGmbH

The Institute of Molecular Biology gGmbH (IMB) is a centre of excellence in the life sciences that was established in 2011 on the campus of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Research at IMB focuses on the cutting-edge fields of epigenetics, genome stability, ageing and RNA biology. The institute is a prime example of successful collaboration between a private foundation and government: The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation has committed 154 million euros to be disbursed from 2009 until 2027 to cover the operating costs of research at IMB. The State of Rhineland-Palatinate has provided approximately 50 million euros for the construction of a state-of-the-art building and is giving a further 52 million in core funding from 2020 until 2027. For more information about IMB, please visit: www.imb.de.

About the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

The University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz is the only medical institution of supra-maximum supply in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate and an internationally recognized science location. Medical and scientific specialists at more than 60 clinics, institutes and departments work interdisciplinarily to treat more than 345,000 patients per year. Highly specialized patient care, research and teaching are inseparably intertwined. More than 3,500 medicine and dentistry students as well as around 670 future medical, commercial and technical professionals are trained in Mainz. With a workforce of approximately 8,700 colleagues the University Medical Center Mainz is one of the largest employers in the region and an important driver of growth and innovation. Find more information online at www.unimedizin-mainz.de/?L=1

Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation

The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization that is committed to the promotion of the medical, biological, chemical, and pharmaceutical sciences. It was established in 1977 by Hubertus Liebrecht (1931–1991), a member of the shareholder family of the Boehringer Ingelheim company. Through its funding programmes Plus 3, Exploration Grants and Rise up!, the Foundation supports excellent scientists during critical stages of their careers. It also endows the international Heinrich Wieland Prize, as well as awards for up-and-coming scientists in Germany. In addition, the Foundation funds institutional projects in Germany, such as the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. www.boehringer-ingelheim-stiftung.de/en

Press contact for further information

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Institute of Molecular Biology gGmbH (IMB), Ackermannweg 4, 55128 Mainz, Germany

Phone: +49 (0) 6131 39 21455, Email: press(at)imb.de