Helen Skaletsky

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

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Publications (35)769.3 Total impact

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    ABSTRACT: The human X and Y chromosomes evolved from an ordinary pair of autosomes, but millions of years ago genetic decay ravaged the Y chromosome, and only three per cent of its ancestral genes survived. We reconstructed the evolution of the Y chromosome across eight mammals to identify biases in gene content and the selective pressures that preserved the surviving ancestral genes. Our findings indicate that survival was nonrandom, and in two cases, convergent across placental and marsupial mammals. We conclude that the gene content of the Y chromosome became specialized through selection to maintain the ancestral dosage of homologous X-Y gene pairs that function as broadly expressed regulators of transcription, translation and protein stability. We propose that beyond its roles in testis determination and spermatogenesis, the Y chromosome is essential for male viability, and has unappreciated roles in Turner's syndrome and in phenotypic differences between the sexes in health and disease.
    Nature 04/2014; 508(7497):494-9. · 38.60 Impact Factor
  • Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 10/2013; · 9.81 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: We compared the human and mouse X chromosomes to systematically test Ohno's law, which states that the gene content of X chromosomes is conserved across placental mammals. First, we improved the accuracy of the human X-chromosome reference sequence through single-haplotype sequencing of ampliconic regions. The new sequence closed gaps in the reference sequence, corrected previously misassembled regions and identified new palindromic amplicons. Our subsequent analysis led us to conclude that the evolution of human and mouse X chromosomes was bimodal. In accord with Ohno's law, 94-95% of X-linked single-copy genes are shared by humans and mice; most are expressed in both sexes. Notably, most X-ampliconic genes are exceptions to Ohno's law: only 31% of human and 22% of mouse X-ampliconic genes had orthologs in the other species. X-ampliconic genes are expressed predominantly in testicular germ cells, and many were independently acquired since divergence from the common ancestor of humans and mice, specializing portions of their X chromosomes for sperm production.
    Nature Genetics 07/2013; · 35.21 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Amplicons - large, nearly identical repeats in direct or inverted orientation - are abundant in the male-specific region of the human Y chromosome (MSY) and provide targets for intrachromosomal non-allelic homologous recombination (NAHR). Thus far, NAHR events resulting in deletions, duplications, inversions, or isodicentric chromosomes have been reported only for amplicon pairs located exclusively on the short arm (Yp) or the long arm (Yq). Here we report our finding of four men with Y chromosomes that evidently formed by intrachromosomal NAHR between inverted repeat pairs comprising one amplicon on Yp and one amplicon on Yq. In two men with spermatogenic failure, sister-chromatid crossing-over resulted in pseudoisoYp chromosome formation and loss of distal Yq. In two men with normal spermatogenesis, intrachromatid crossing-over generated pericentric inversions. These findings highlight the recombinogenic nature of the MSY, as intrachromosomal NAHR occurs for nearly all Y-chromosome amplicon pairs, even those located on opposing chromosome arms.
    Genomics 05/2013; · 3.01 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Deletions involving the Y chromosome's AZFc region are the most common known genetic cause of severe spermatogenic failure (SSF). Six recurrent interstitial deletions affecting the region have been reported, but their population genetics are largely unexplored. We assessed the deletions' prevalence in 20,884 men in five populations and found four of the six deletions (presented here in descending order of prevalence): gr/gr, b2/b3, b1/b3, and b2/b4. One of every 27 men carried one of these four deletions. The 1.6 Mb gr/gr deletion, found in one of every 41 men, almost doubles the risk of SSF and accounts for ∼2% of SSF, although <2% of men with the deletion are affected. The 1.8 Mb b2/b3 deletion, found in one of every 90 men, does not appear to be a risk factor for SSF. The 1.6 Mb b1/b3 deletion, found in one of every 994 men, appears to increase the risk of SSF by a factor of 2.5, although <2% of men with the deletion are affected, and it accounts for only 0.15% of SSF. The 3.5 Mb b2/b4 deletion, found in one of every 2,320 men, increases the risk of SSF 145 times and accounts for ∼6% of SSF; the observed prevalence should approximate the rate at which the deletion arises anew in each generation. We conclude that a single rare variant of major effect (the b2/b4 deletion) and a single common variant of modest effect (the gr/gr deletion) are largely responsible for the AZFc region's contribution to SSF in the population.
    The American Journal of Human Genetics 10/2012; · 11.20 Impact Factor
  • Jennifer F Hughes, Helen Skaletsky, David C Page
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    ABSTRACT: Studies of Y chromosome evolution often emphasize gene loss, but this loss has been counterbalanced by addition of new genes. The DAZ genes, which are critical to human spermatogenesis, were acquired by the Y chromosome in the ancestor of Old World monkeys and apes. We and our colleagues recently sequenced the rhesus macaque Y chromosome, and comparison of this sequence to human and chimpanzee enables us to reconstruct much of the evolutionary history of DAZ. We report that DAZ arrived on the Y chromosome about 38 million years ago via the transposition of at least 1.1 megabases of autosomal DNA. This transposition also brought five additional genes to the Y chromosome, but all five genes were subsequently lost through mutation or deletion. As the only surviving gene, DAZ experienced extensive restructuring, including intragenic amplification and gene duplication, and has been the target of positive selection in the chimpanzee lineage. Editor's suggested further reading in BioEssays Should Y stay or should Y go: The evolution of non-recombining sex chromosomes Abstract.
    BioEssays 10/2012; · 5.42 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: The human X and Y chromosomes evolved from an ordinary pair of autosomes during the past 200-300 million years. The human MSY (male-specific region of Y chromosome) retains only three percent of the ancestral autosomes' genes owing to genetic decay. This evolutionary decay was driven by a series of five 'stratification' events. Each event suppressed X-Y crossing over within a chromosome segment or 'stratum', incorporated that segment into the MSY and subjected its genes to the erosive forces that attend the absence of crossing over. The last of these events occurred 30 million years ago, 5 million years before the human and Old World monkey lineages diverged. Although speculation abounds regarding ongoing decay and looming extinction of the human Y chromosome, remarkably little is known about how many MSY genes were lost in the human lineage in the 25 million years that have followed its separation from the Old World monkey lineage. To investigate this question, we sequenced the MSY of the rhesus macaque, an Old World monkey, and compared it to the human MSY. We discovered that during the last 25 million years MSY gene loss in the human lineage was limited to the youngest stratum (stratum 5), which comprises three percent of the human MSY. In the older strata, which collectively comprise the bulk of the human MSY, gene loss evidently ceased more than 25 million years ago. Likewise, the rhesus MSY has not lost any older genes (from strata 1-4) during the past 25 million years, despite its major structural differences to the human MSY. The rhesus MSY is simpler, with few amplified gene families or palindromes that might enable intrachromosomal recombination and repair. We present an empirical reconstruction of human MSY evolution in which each stratum transitioned from rapid, exponential loss of ancestral genes to strict conservation through purifying selection.
    Nature 03/2012; 483(7387):82-6. · 38.60 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: In birds, as in mammals, one pair of chromosomes differs between the sexes. In birds, males are ZZ and females ZW. In mammals, males are XY and females XX. Like the mammalian XY pair, the avian ZW pair is believed to have evolved from autosomes, with most change occurring in the chromosomes found in only one sex--the W and Y chromosomes. By contrast, the sex chromosomes found in both sexes--the Z and X chromosomes--are assumed to have diverged little from their autosomal progenitors. Here we report findings that challenge this assumption for both the chicken Z chromosome and the human X chromosome. The chicken Z chromosome, which we sequenced essentially to completion, is less gene-dense than chicken autosomes but contains a massive tandem array containing hundreds of duplicated genes expressed in testes. A comprehensive comparison of the chicken Z chromosome with the finished sequence of the human X chromosome demonstrates that each evolved independently from different portions of the ancestral genome. Despite this independence, the chicken Z and human X chromosomes share features that distinguish them from autosomes: the acquisition and amplification of testis-expressed genes, and a low gene density resulting from an expansion of intergenic regions. These features were not present on the autosomes from which the Z and X chromosomes originated but were instead acquired during the evolution of Z and X as sex chromosomes. We conclude that the avian Z and mammalian X chromosomes followed convergent evolutionary trajectories, despite their evolving with opposite (female versus male) systems of heterogamety. More broadly, in birds and mammals, sex chromosome evolution involved not only gene loss in sex-specific chromosomes, but also marked expansion and gene acquisition in sex chromosomes common to males and females.
    Nature 07/2010; 466(7306):612-6. · 38.60 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: The human Y chromosome began to evolve from an autosome hundreds of millions of years ago, acquiring a sex-determining function and undergoing a series of inversions that suppressed crossing over with the X chromosome. Little is known about the recent evolution of the Y chromosome because only the human Y chromosome has been fully sequenced. Prevailing theories hold that Y chromosomes evolve by gene loss, the pace of which slows over time, eventually leading to a paucity of genes, and stasis. These theories have been buttressed by partial sequence data from newly emergent plant and animal Y chromosomes, but they have not been tested in older, highly evolved Y chromosomes such as that of humans. Here we finished sequencing of the male-specific region of the Y chromosome (MSY) in our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, achieving levels of accuracy and completion previously reached for the human MSY. By comparing the MSYs of the two species we show that they differ radically in sequence structure and gene content, indicating rapid evolution during the past 6 million years. The chimpanzee MSY contains twice as many massive palindromes as the human MSY, yet it has lost large fractions of the MSY protein-coding genes and gene families present in the last common ancestor. We suggest that the extraordinary divergence of the chimpanzee and human MSYs was driven by four synergistic factors: the prominent role of the MSY in sperm production, 'genetic hitchhiking' effects in the absence of meiotic crossing over, frequent ectopic recombination within the MSY, and species differences in mating behaviour. Although genetic decay may be the principal dynamic in the evolution of newly emergent Y chromosomes, wholesale renovation is the paramount theme in the continuing evolution of chimpanzee, human and perhaps other older MSYs.
    Nature 01/2010; 463(7280):536-9. · 38.60 Impact Factor
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    Genome Biology 01/2010; · 10.30 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Y-linked single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) have served as powerful tools for reconstructing the worldwide genealogy of human Y chromosomes and for illuminating patrilineal relationships among modern human populations. However, there has been no systematic, worldwide survey of sequence variation within the protein-coding genes of the Y chromosome. Here we report and analyze coding sequence variation among the 16 single-copy "X-degenerate" genes of the Y chromosome. We examined variation in these genes in 105 men representing worldwide diversity, resequencing in each man an average of 27 kb of coding DNA, 40 kb of intronic DNA, and, for comparison, 15 kb of DNA in single-copy Y-chromosomal pseudogenes. There is remarkably little variation in X-degenerate protein sequences: two chromosomes drawn at random differ on average by a single amino acid, with half of these differences arising from a single, conservative Asp-->Glu mutation that occurred approximately 50,000 years ago. Further analysis showed that nucleotide diversity and the proportion of variant sites are significantly lower for nonsynonymous sites than for synonymous sites, introns, or pseudogenes. These differences imply that natural selection has operated effectively in preserving the amino acid sequences of the Y chromosome's X-degenerate proteins during the last approximately 100,000 years of human history. Thus our findings are at odds with prominent accounts of the human Y chromosome's imminent demise.
    The American Journal of Human Genetics 12/2009; 85(6):923-8. · 11.20 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Massive palindromes in the human Y chromosome harbor mirror-image gene pairs essential for spermatogenesis. During evolution, these gene pairs have been maintained by intrapalindrome, arm-to-arm recombination. The mechanism of intrapalindrome recombination and risk of harmful effects are unknown. We report 51 patients with isodicentric Y (idicY) chromosomes formed by homologous crossing over between opposing arms of palindromes on sister chromatids. These ectopic recombination events occur at nearly all Y-linked palindromes. Based on our findings, we propose that intrapalindrome sequence identity is maintained via noncrossover pathways of homologous recombination. DNA double-strand breaks that initiate these pathways can be alternatively resolved by crossing over between sister chromatids to form idicY chromosomes, with clinical consequences ranging from spermatogenic failure to sex reversal and Turner syndrome. Our observations imply that crossover and noncrossover pathways are active in nearly all Y-linked palindromes, exposing an Achilles' heel in the mechanism that preserves palindrome-borne genes.
    Cell 10/2009; 138(5):855-69. · 31.96 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Y chromosome deletions arise frequently in human populations, where they cause sex reversal and Turner syndrome and predispose individuals to infertility and germ cell cancer. Knowledge of the nucleotide sequence of the male-specific region of the Y chromosome (MSY) makes it possible to precisely demarcate such deletions and the repertoires of genes lost, offering insights into mechanisms of deletion and the molecular etiologies of associated phenotypes. Such deletion mapping is usually conducted using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays for the presence or absence of a series of Y-chromosomal DNA markers, or sequence-tagged sites (STSs). In the course of mapping intact and aberrant Y chromosomes during the past two decades, we and our colleagues have developed robust PCR assays for 1287 Y-specific STSs. These PCR assays amplify 1698 loci at an average spacing of <14 kb across the MSY euchromatin. To facilitate mapping of deletions, we have compiled a database of these STSs, MSY Breakpoint Mapper (http://breakpointmapper.wi.mit.edu/). When queried, this online database provides regionally targeted catalogs of STSs and nearby genes. MSY Breakpoint Mapper is useful for efficiently and systematically defining the breakpoint(s) of virtually any naturally occurring Y chromosome deletion.
    Nucleic Acids Research 01/2008; 36(Database issue):D809-14. · 8.81 Impact Factor
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    Fang Yang, Helen Skaletsky, P Jeremy Wang
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    ABSTRACT: Post-translational modification by ubiquitin and ubiquitin-related proteins plays critical roles in protein degradation and in regulation of essential cellular processes. In mammals, transcription grinds to a halt during late spermiogenesis due to compaction of the spermatid genome, which creates a special need for robust post-transcriptional regulation. Here, we report the finding of a novel mouse ubiquitin-like protein, UBL4B. Ubl4b is a testis-specific autosomal gene. Ubl4b lacks introns and evidently arose from an X-linked intron-bearing housekeeping gene, Ubl4a, by retroposition during mammalian evolution. While Ubl4a is expressed throughout spermatogenesis, Ubl4b is restricted to post-meiotic germ cells. Ubl4a is highly conserved, but Ubl4b has undergone rapid evolution and may have evolved new functions. Our data suggest that evolution of Ubl4b is not due to meiotic sex chromosome inactivation (MSCI). Alternatively, origination of Ubl4b was due to MSCI, but Ubl4b eventually evolved to be restricted to post-meiotic germ cells.
    Gene Expression Patterns 02/2007; 7(1-2):131-6. · 1.64 Impact Factor
  • Nature Genetics 09/2006; 38(8):853-4; author reply 854-5. · 35.21 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Although much structural polymorphism in the human genome has been catalogued, the kinetics of underlying change remain largely unexplored. Because human Y chromosomes are clonally inherited, it has been possible to capture their detailed relationships in a robust, worldwide genealogical tree. Examination of structural variation across this tree opens avenues for investigating rates of underlying mutations. We selected one Y chromosome from each of 47 branches of this tree and searched for large-scale variation. Four chromosomal regions showed extensive variation resulting from numerous large-scale mutations. Within the tree encompassed by the studied chromosomes, the distal-Yq heterochromatin changed length > or = 12 times, the TSPY gene array changed length > or = 23 times, the 3.6-Mb IR3/IR3 region changed orientation > or = 12 times and the AZFc region was rearranged > or = 20 times. After determining the total time spanned by all branches of this tree (approximately 1.3 million years or 52,000 generations), we converted these mutation counts to lower bounds on rates: > or = 2.3 x 10(-4), > or = 4.4 x 10(-4), > or = 2.3 x 10(-4) and > or = 3.8 x 10(-4) large-scale mutations per father-to-son Y transmission, respectively. Thus, high mutation rates have driven extensive structural polymorphism among human Y chromosomes. At the same time, we found limited variation in the copy number of Y-linked genes, which raises the possibility of selective constraints.
    Nature Genetics 05/2006; 38(4):463-7. · 35.21 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: The human Y chromosome, transmitted clonally through males, contains far fewer genes than the sexually recombining autosome from which it evolved. The enormity of this evolutionary decline has led to predictions that the Y chromosome will be completely bereft of functional genes within ten million years. Although recent evidence of gene conversion within massive Y-linked palindromes runs counter to this hypothesis, most unique Y-linked genes are not situated in palindromes and have no gene conversion partners. The 'impending demise' hypothesis thus rests on understanding the degree of conservation of these genes. Here we find, by systematically comparing the DNA sequences of unique, Y-linked genes in chimpanzee and human, which diverged about six million years ago, evidence that in the human lineage, all such genes were conserved through purifying selection. In the chimpanzee lineage, by contrast, several genes have sustained inactivating mutations. Gene decay in the chimpanzee lineage might be a consequence of positive selection focused elsewhere on the Y chromosome and driven by sperm competition.
    Nature 10/2005; 437(7055):100-3. · 38.60 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: We identified the gene carrying the juvenile spermatogonial depletion mutation (jsd), a recessive spermatogenic defect mapped to mouse chromosome 1 (refs. 1,2). We localized jsd to a 272-kb region and resequenced this area to identify the underlying mutation: a frameshift that severely truncates the predicted protein product of a 2.3-kb genomic open reading frame. This gene, Utp14b, evidently arose through reverse transcription of an mRNA from an X-linked gene and integration of the resulting cDNA into an intron of an autosomal gene, whose promoter and 5' untranslated exons are shared with Utp14b. To our knowledge, Utp14b is the first protein-coding retrogene to be linked to a recessive mammalian phenotype. The X-linked progenitor of Utp14b is the mammalian ortholog of yeast Utp14, which encodes a protein required for processing of pre-rRNA and hence for ribosome assembly. Our findings substantiate the hypothesis that mammalian spermatogenesis is supported by autosomal retrogenes that evolved from X-linked housekeeping genes to compensate for silencing of the X chromosome during male meiosis. We find that Utp14b-like retrogenes arose independently and were conserved during evolution in at least four mammalian lineages. This recurrence implies a strong selective pressure, perhaps to enable ribosome assembly in male meiotic cells.
    Nature Genetics 09/2004; 36(8):872-6. · 35.21 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: The availability of the sequence of the chimpanzee genome provides an opportunity to examine human genes and their chimpanzee orthologs and to analyze selective pressures that have been shaping the olfactory receptor repertoire since the human-chimpanzee divergence. We determined the ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous changes for each of 186 orthologous pairs and then examined how the distribution of these ratios compares with the distribution expected under neutral drift. Consistent with the diminishing importance of olfaction for these species, we find no evidence for positive selection and we find evidence of weak purifying selection affecting over half of the repertoire.
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 07/2004; 101(24):9019-22. · 9.81 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Many human Y-chromosomal deletions are thought to severely impair reproductive fitness, which precludes their transmission to the next generation and thus ensures their rarity in the population. Here we report a 1.6-Mb deletion that persists over generations and is sufficiently common to be considered a polymorphism. We hypothesized that this deletion might affect spermatogenesis because it removes almost half of the Y chromosome's AZFc region, a gene-rich segment that is critical for sperm production. An association study established that this deletion, called gr/gr, is a significant risk factor for spermatogenic failure. The gr/gr deletion has far lower penetrance with respect to spermatogenic failure than previously characterized Y-chromosomal deletions; it is often transmitted from father to son. By studying the distribution of gr/gr-deleted chromosomes across the branches of the Y chromosome's genealogical tree, we determined that this deletion arose independently at least 14 times in human history. We suggest that the existence of this deletion as a polymorphism reflects a balance between haploid selection, which culls gr/gr-deleted Y chromosomes from the population, and homologous recombination, which continues to generate new gr/gr deletions.
    Nature Genetics 12/2003; 35(3):247-51. · 35.21 Impact Factor

Publication Stats

12k Citations
769.30 Total Impact Points

Institutions

  • 2000–2014
    • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
      • Department of Biology
      Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
  • 1998–2013
    • Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
      Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
  • 1996–2008
    • Howard Hughes Medical Institute
      Maryland, United States