Modes of sex determination are quite variable in vertebrates. The developmental decision to form a testis or an ovary can be influenced by one gene, several genes, environmental variables, or a combination of these factors. Nevertheless, certain morphogenetic aspects of sex determination appear to be conserved in amniotes. Here we clone fragments of nine candidate sex-determining genes from the snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina, a species with temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). We then analyze expression of these genes during the thermosensitive period of gonad development. In particular, we compare gene expression profiles in gonads from embryos incubated at a male-producing temperature to those from embryos at a female-producing temperature. Expression of Dmrt1 and Sox9 mRNA increased gradually at the male-producing temperature, but was suppressed at the female-producing temperature. This finding suggests that Dmrt1 and Sox9 play a role in testis development. In contrast, expression of aromatase, androgen receptor (Ar), and Foxl2 mRNA was constant at the male-producing temperature, but increased several-fold in embryos at the female-producing temperature. Aromatase, Ar, and Foxl2 may therefore play a role in ovary development. In addition, there was a small temperature effect on ERα expression with lower mRNA levels found in embryos at the female-producing temperature. Finally, Dax1, Fgf9, and SF-1 were not differentially expressed during the sex-determining period, suggesting these genes are not involved in sex determination in the snapping turtle. Comparison of gene expression profiles among amniotes indicates that Dmrt1 and Sox9 are part of a core testis-determining pathway and that Ar, aromatase, ERα, and Foxl2 are part of a core ovary-determining pathway.

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