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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The sex-biased brain: sexual dimorphism in gene expression in two species of songbirds

Sara Naurin1*, Bengt Hansson1, Dennis Hasselquist1, Yong-Hwan Kim2 and Staffan Bensch1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, Lund University, Ecology Building, S-223 62 Lund, Sweden

2 Buck institute for age research, 8001 Redwood blvd, Novato, CA 94945, USA

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BMC Genomics 2011, 12:37  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-37

Published: 14 January 2011



Despite virtually identical DNA sequences between the sexes, sexual dimorphism is a widespread phenomenon in nature. To a large extent the systematic differences between the sexes must therefore arise from processes involving gene regulation. In accordance, sexual dimorphism in gene expression is common and extensive. Genes with sexually dimorphic regulation are known to evolve rapidly, both in DNA sequence and in gene expression profile. Studies of gene expression in related species can shed light on the flexibility, or degree of conservation, of the gene expression profiles underlying sexual dimorphism.


We have studied the extent of sexual dimorphism in gene expression in the brain of two species of songbirds, the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) and the common whitethroat (Sylvia communis), using large-scale microarray technology. Sexual dimorphism in gene expression was extensive in both species, and predominantly sex-linked: most genes identified were male-biased and Z-linked. Interestingly, approximately 50% of the male-biased Z-linked genes were sex-biased only in one of the study species.


Our results corroborate the results of recent studies in chicken and zebra finch which have been interpreted as caused by a low degree of dosage compensation in female birds (i.e. the heterogametic sex). Moreover, they suggest that zebra finches and common whitethroats dosage compensate partly different sets of genes on the Z chromosome. It is possible that this pattern reflects differences in either the essentiality or the level of sexual antagonism of these genes in the respective species. Such differences might correspond to genes with different rates of evolution related to sexual dimorphism in the avian brain, and might therefore be correlated with differences between the species in sex-specific behaviours.