Sex-lethal (Sxl) is the master switch gene for somatic sex determination in Drosophila melanogaster. In XX animals, Sxl becomes activated and imposes female development; in X(Y) animals, Sxl remains inactive and male development ensues. A switch gene for sex determination, called F, has also been identified in the housefly, Musca domestica. An active F dictates female development, while male development ensues when F is inactive. To test if the switch functions of Sxl and F are founded on a common molecular basis, we isolated the homologous Sxl gene in the housefly. Though highly conserved in sequence, Musca-Sxl is not sex-specifically regulated: the same transcripts and protein isoforms are expressed in both male and female animals throughout development. Musca-Sxl is apparently not controlled by the primary sex-determining signal and, thus, is unlikely to correspond to the F gene. Ectopic expression of Musca-SXL protein in Drosophila does not exert any noticeable effects on the known target genes of endogenous Sxl. Instead, forced overexpression of the transgene eventually results in lethality of both XY and XX animals and in developmental abnormalities in some escaper XY animals. Similar results were obtained with the Sxl homologue of Ceratitis capitata (Saccone, G., Peluso, I., Artiaco, D., Giodano, E., Bopp, D. and Polito, L. C. (1998) Development 125, 1495–1500) suggesting that, in these non-drosophilid species, Sxl performs a function different from that in sex determination.

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