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Open Access Research article

High degree of sex chromosome differentiation in stickleback fishes

Takahito Shikano*, Heini M Natri, Yukinori Shimada and Juha Merilä

Author Affiliations

Ecological Genetics Research Unit, Department of Biosciences, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 65, FI-00014, Helsinki, Finland

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BMC Genomics 2011, 12:474  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-474

Published: 29 September 2011

Abstract

Background

Studies of closely related species with different sex chromosome systems can provide insights into the processes of sex chromosome differentiation and evolution. To investigate the potential utility of molecular markers in studying sex chromosome differentiation at early stages of their divergence, we examined the levels and patterns of genetic differentiation between sex chromosomes in nine-spined (Pungitius pungitius) and three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) using microsatellite markers.

Results

A set of novel microsatellite markers spanning the entire length of the sex chromosomes were developed for nine-spined sticklebacks using the sequenced genomes of other fish species. Sex-specific patterns of genetic variability and male-specific alleles were identified at most of these loci, indicating a high degree of differentiation between the X and Y chromosomes in nine-spined sticklebacks. In three-spined sticklebacks, male-specific alleles were detected at some loci confined to two chromosomal regions. In addition, male-specific null alleles were identified at several other loci, implying the absence of Y chromosomal alleles at these loci. Overall, male-specific alleles and null alleles were found over a region spanning 81% of the sex chromosomes in three-spined sticklebacks.

Conclusions

High levels but distinct patterns of sex chromosome differentiation were uncovered in the stickleback species that diverged 13 million years ago. Our results suggest that the Y chromosome is highly degenerate in three-spined sticklebacks, but not in nine-spined sticklebacks. In general, the results demonstrate that microsatellites can be useful in identifying the degree and patterns of sex chromosome differentiation in species at initial stages of sex chromosome evolution.