History of Medicine

A History of the Discovery of Random X Chromosome Inactivation in the Human Female and its Significance.

Sophia Balderman and Marshall A. Lichtman


Genetic determinants of sex in placental mammals developed by the evolution of primordial autosomes into the male and female sex chromosomes. The Y chromosome determines maleness by the action of the gene SRY, which encodes a protein that initiates a sequence of events prompting the embryonic gonads to develop into testes. The X chromosome in the absence of a Y chromosome results in a female by permitting the conversion of the embryonic gonads into ovaries. We trace the historical progress that resulted in the discovery that one X chromosome in the female is randomly inactivated in early embryogenesis, accomplishing approximate equivalency of X chromosome gene dosage in both sexes. This event results in half of the somatic cells in a tissue containing proteins encoded by the genes of the maternal X chromosome and half having proteins encoded by the genes of the paternal X chromosome, on average, accounting for the phenotype of a female heterozygote with an X chromosome mutation. The hypothesis of X chromosome inactivation as a random event early in embryogenesis was first described as a result of studies of variegated coat color in female mice. Similar results were found in women using the X chromosome-linked gene, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, studied in red cells. The random inactivation of the X chromosome-bearing genes for isoenzyme types A and B of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase was used to establish the clonal origin of neoplasms in informative women with leiomyomas. Behind these discoveries are the stories of the men and women scientists whose research enlightened these aspects of X chromosome function and their implication for medicine.

Rambam Maimonides Med J 2011;2(3):e0058