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Drosophila switch gene Sex-lethal can bypass its switch-gene target transformer to regulate aspects of female behavior.


The switch gene Sex-lethal (Sxl) was thought to elicit all aspects of Drosophila female somatic differentiation other than size dimorphism by controlling only the switch gene transformer (tra). Here we show instead that Sxl controls an aspect of female sexual behavior by acting on a target other than or in addition to tra. We inferred the existence of this unknown Sxl target from the observation that a constitutively feminizing tra transgene that restores fertility to tra(-) females failed to restore fertility to Sxl-mutant females that were adult viable but functionally tra(-). The sterility of these mutant females was caused by an ovulation failure. Because tra expression is not sufficient to render these Sxl-mutant females fertile, we refer to this pathway as the tra-insufficient feminization (TIF) branch of the sex-determination regulatory pathway. Using a transgene that conditionally expresses two Sxl feminizing isoforms, we find that the TIF branch is required developmentally for neurons that also sex-specifically express fruitless, a tra gene target controlling sexual behavior. Thus, in a subset of fruitless neurons, targets of the TIF and tra pathways appear to collaborate to control ovulation. In most insects, Sxl has no sex-specific functions, and tra, rather than Sxl, is both the target of the primary sex signal and the gene that maintains the female developmental commitment via positive autoregulation. The TIF pathway may represent an ancestral female-specific function acquired by Sxl in an early evolutionary step toward its becoming the regulator of tra in Drosophila.

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