In D. melanogaster the binary switch gene Sex-lethal (Sxl) plays a pivotal role in somatic sex determination -- when the Sxl gene is on the female pathway is followed, while the male pathway is followed when the gene is off. In the present study we have asked whether the Sxl gene is present in other species of the genus Drosophila and whether it is subject to a similar sex-specific on-off regulation. Sxl proteins were found in all of the drosophilids examined, and they display a sex-specific pattern of expression. Furthermore, characterization of the Sxl gene in the distant drosophilan relative, D. virilis, reveals that the structure and sequence organization of the gene has been well conserved and that, like melanogaster, alternative RNA processing is responsible for its sex-specific expression. Hence, this posttranscriptional on-off regulatory mechanism probably existed before the separation of the drosophilan and sophophoran subgenera and it seems likely that Sxl functions as a sex determination switch gene in most species in the Drosophila genus. Although alternative splicing appears to be responsible for the on-off regulation of the Sxl gene in D. virilis, this species is unusual in that Sxl proteins are present not only in females but also in males. The D. virilis female and male proteins appear to be identical over most of the length except for the amino-terminal approx. 25 aa which are encoded by the differentially spliced exons. In transcriptionally active polytene chromosomes, the male and female proteins bind to the same cytogenetic loci, including the sites corresponding to the D. virilis Sxl and tra genes. Hence, though the male proteins are able to interact with appropriate target pre-mRNAs, they are apparently incapable of altering the splicing pattern of these pre-mRNAs.

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