Sexual selection drives evolution and rapid turnover of male gene expression

Peter W Harrison, Alison E Wright, Fabian Zimmer, Rebecca Dean, Stephen H Montgomery, Marie A Pointer, Judith E Mank

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


The profound and pervasive differences in gene expression observed between males and females, and the unique evolutionary properties of these genes in many species, have led to the widespread assumption that they are the product of sexual selection and sexual conflict. However, we still lack a clear understanding of the connection between sexual selection and transcriptional dimorphism, often termed sex-biased gene expression. Moreover, the relative contribution of sexual selection vs. drift in shaping broad patterns of expression, divergence, and polymorphism remains unknown. To assess the role of sexual selection in shaping these patterns, we assembled transcriptomes from an avian clade representing the full range of sexual dimorphism and sexual selection. We use these species to test the links between sexual selection and sex-biased gene expression evolution in a comparative framework. Through ancestral reconstruction of sex bias, we demonstrate a rapid turnover of sex bias across this clade driven by sexual selection and show it to be primarily the result of expression changes in males. We use phylogenetically controlled comparative methods to demonstrate that phenotypic measures of sexual selection predict the proportion of male-biased but not female-biased gene expression. Although male-biased genes show elevated rates of coding sequence evolution, consistent with previous reports in a range of taxa, there is no association between sexual selection and rates of coding sequence evolution, suggesting that expression changes may be more important than coding sequence in sexual selection. Taken together, our results highlight the power of sexual selection to act on gene expression differences and shape genome evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to) 4393-4398
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number14
Early online date23 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - 7 Apr 2015


  • Animals
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Female
  • Galliformes/genetics
  • Geese/genetics
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Gonads/physiology
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Male
  • Phylogeny
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sex Factors
  • Spleen/physiology
  • Transcription, Genetic
  • Transcriptome

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