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Scientists Crack the Y Chromosome Code for the First Time

Y chromosome mapping reveals hidden genetic clues.
Y chromosome mapping reveals hidden genetic clues. Credit: NICHD / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Researchers have successfully charted the Y chromosome’s genetic landscape for the very first time. This significant advancement holds the potential to pave the way for addressing health concerns such male-related cancers and problems with fertility.

The Y chromosome, which is shorter and less complex, sets men apart from women. It houses genes that hold the key to creating proteins crucial for shaping sperm cells and their growth.

Complete mapping of Y chromosome

A recent accomplishment by researchers has led to a complete mapping of the entire Y chromosome. This mapping has unveiled over sixty-two million basic units of DNA, known as base pairs, which is thirty million more than what was initially known. Additionally, forty-one new genes responsible for producing proteins have been identified within the Y chromosome.

Although a partial sequencing of the Y chromosome was achieved in 2003, only half of its composition was decoded at that time.

While the researchers are still in the early stages of their exploration, they’ve highlighted the potential of this mapping process. It could aid in identifying variations in the Y chromosome’s structure and linking them to specific characteristics.

Ultimately, this understanding could enable the development of personalized treatments for genetic disorders.

Loss of genetic material

Earlier studies have revealed that men can experience a loss of certain or all parts of their genetic material as they grow older. However, the precise reasons behind this occurrence and its potential consequences have remained a mystery to scientists.

This loss of genetic material has been associated with an elevated likelihood of various health issues, including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and the reduction of sperm counts, leading to infertility.

Kateryna Makova, a professor from Penn State University and researcher of the study, remarked, “The Y chromosome is by far the most difficult human chromosome to sequence and assemble.”

She further stated, “Deciphering its complete sequence is a major scientific milestone. My group has been working on the Y chromosome for over 20 years, and I did not think it would be possible to obtain its complete sequence shortly.”

Decoding of chromosomes

In 2020, scientists at the NHGRI successfully decoded the entire sequence of the X chromosome. This particular chromosome was chosen as the first to be sequenced due to its connection with a variety of diseases such as hemophilia, chronic granulomatous disease, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Humans possess a total of twenty-four chromosomes, which include the Y and X chromosomes. This arrangement results in humans having twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, while other great apes possess twenty-four pairs.

The Y chromosome posed a challenge due to its relatively intricate structure. Unlike most other chromosomes, the Y chromosome contains palindromes, which are sequences that read the same forwards and backward.

Use of DNA sequencing techniques to study chromosomes

The T2T Consortium, responsible for conducting the study, received funding from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

They employed innovative DNA sequencing techniques, sequence assembly approaches, and insights garnered from achieving complete sequences for the remaining twenty-three human chromosomes. These combined efforts were instrumental in unraveling the enigma of the Y chromosome.

Adam Phillippy, a senior researcher at NHGRI and the leader of the consortium, shared his insights, stating, “The biggest surprise was how organized the repeats are.”

He continued, “We didn’t know what exactly made up the missing sequence. It could have been very chaotic, but instead, nearly half of the chromosome is made of alternating blocks of two specific repeating sequences known as satellite DNA.”

Furthermore, the inclusion of the newly identified thirty million DNA units in the Y chromosome reference is of significant importance for the investigation of genome evolution.

In a separate investigation conducted by a team from the Jackson Laboratory, led by Professor Charles Lee, Ph.D., FACMG, the reference sequence was utilized to construct Y chromosomes from forty-three individuals with ancestral ties to Africa.

The study revealed that these participants collectively shared a common ancestor approximately 183,000 years ago. Notably, the Y chromosomes exhibited a wide range of sizes, spanning from 45.2 million to 84.9 million base pairs in length.

Phillippy said that while the development of treatments for Y chromosome-related diseases might not be immediate, he remains hopeful about the accomplishment.

“This is like the blueprint we’re looking at, and if there are complete holes in it, you might not even know where to begin,” Phillippy said. “But by having them filled in, we have the complete picture.”

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