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How Sex is Determined in Drosophila

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kristin Klucevsek

Kristin has taught college Biology courses and has her doctorate in Biology.

'Drosophila' fruit flies share a common trait with humans: their chromosomes determine whether they are male or female. However, sex is determined differently in fruit flies, and isn't dependent on the presence or absence of a Y chromosome. Investigate how sex is determined in 'Drosophila,' as well as the different possible sexual outcomes. Updated: 06/07/2022

Drosophila Chromosomes

In today's lesson, we'll start with doing a little comparison between humans and fruit flies, as Drosophila fruit flies are a common genetic model organism. We have a few things in common. We're both animals, we both enjoy a ripe piece of fruit, and we both have chromosomes that determine if we're male or female - just in different ways.

There are 46 total chromosomes in a human diploid cell, with two of these 46 chromosomes, or one pair, being the sex chromosomes (either an X or a Y). The other 44 chromosomes, in 22 pairs, are all known as autosomes. It's not so hard to determine sex in humans. In fact, you probably have this one down pat. Usually, it's as simple as the fact that an XX genotype is female, while an XY genotype is genetically male. The autosomes don't influence human sex.

In a Drosophila fly, there aren't quite so many chromosomes, nor is sex determination so cut and dry. There are only three autosomes, called autosomes 2, 3 and 4. Autosome 4 is really itty-bitty in size. In a diploid cell, you would have three pairs of autosomes, or six non-sex chromosomes, and a pair of sex chromosomes. These two sex chromosomes could be either an X or a Y. However, you will soon see that it can be more complicated than this, leading to more sexes in flies than just your everyday female or male.

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  • 0:07 Drosophila Chromosomes
  • 1:30 Sex Determination
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Sex Determination in Drosophila

In other lessons, we've discussed how Drosophila fruit flies make a superb developmental model organism. Although much of animal development is conserved, and there are identifiable patterns of gene expression that flies and humans share, sex determination is one area where the two have distinct differences. While the presence of a Y sex chromosome is what makes a human male a male, a Y chromosome does not determine sex in flies. The Y chromosome does include some male sex genes, but it doesn't exactly determine sex. In fact, sex is mostly determined by the ratio of X chromosomes to autosome haploid sets.

This is the classic definition of sex determination in flies. As with most things in science, this is actually more complicated than this simple definition. Sex determination also involves the expression of specific autosome and sex chromosome genes. We won't get into the nitty-gritty here, but you should be aware that another layer of control exists.

Generally speaking, a ratio of X chromosomes to autosome sets equal or greater to one produces a female, while a ratio less than one produces a male.

We can summarize possible ratios and sex with the following table, where each A represents a haploid set of autosomes and each X represents one X chromosome. Now remember that in a classic fly diploid, there would be two sets of autosomes, otherwise known here as AA. Because the Y chromosome does not determine sexuality, we are not including it on this table.

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