Recently scientists have found that a specific gene can be altered to make a female body begin functioning as a male, and another to make a male function as female. Now, I am not a molecular geneticist, but my parents are, so I feel entirely capable of talking about this situation by summarizing what other people wrote. ;)
If you remember your 6th grade science class, it has been commonly thought that physical sex is determined by X-chromosomes and Y-chromosomes (XX, XY, XXX, XYY etc). The research for this new study, published in the journal Cell, challenges that concept. The genes known as FOXL2 (active females) and SOX9 (active in males) are found on a non-sex chromosome that is in both the male and female sex. The new discovery states that genes are all that stand between changing the female sex (XX) into the male sex (XY), and ovaries into (non-sperm producing) testes. Long story short, FOXL2 and SOX9 are the light switches between the male and female sex.
When active FOXL9 bonds with estrogen and “blocks” high levels of testosterone from being produced. When working with mice, scientists found a way to artificially “switch off” FOXL2, un-blocking the testosterone (along with other elements) making an otherwise female sexed body function as male. The body begins to produce testosterone at the levels of a healthy male and eventually turns the ovaries to testes. FOXL2 and SOX9 both exist in males and females, but if FOXL2 is on, SOX9 is on. (Apparently Dr. Seuss is a geneticist.) For the female sex to become male, turn FOXL2 off which will turn SOX9 on. The research also suggests, or is interpreted, to show that FOXL2 is continually fighting to keep ovaries as ovaries, resulting in several articles titled “Battle of the Sexes,” along with some cute ones like “Minnie to Micky…” and the poorly written mess in “Gene Stops Ovaries from TESTIfying”
What does this mean for humans, you may ask? The researchers are hoping for this information to be useful in understanding and treating medical conditions such as premature menopause in women and, less in my favor, disorders of sexual development AKA intersex conditions which can lead to more problematic, non-consensual “fixing.”
Another possibility especially relevant for us trans folks is that this can help us in physical transition. If scientists can “switch off” this gene in humans, it would trigger the growth of secondary sex characteristics, like facial hair or breasts, and and chromosomally transform human ovaries into testes and testes to ovaries.The body would begin to naturally produce testosterone or estrogen, which means bye-bye needles and pills. Hormonal transition would be entirely internalized. In addition, the research found no adverse health effects and a normal lifespan, something we can’t say for current hormone therapy. Sterility would still be an unhappy result, but the overall process would be significantly less invasive, healthier, and possibly cheaper in long term.
Sounds great, right? Honestly, I think it does, as long as we keep things in check. There are many ways the institution can flip this around and make it totally inaccessible to all of us… but lets try to be optimistic for a minute. I’d like to have some hope for a minute.