15 December 2022
Goodbye and good riddance … maybe
by Paul Branch
It’s long been thought that the world would be a far better place without one of life’s great useless extravagances: men. The male of the human species has much to answer for – wars, gender discrimination, football hooliganism, bad jokes, bad taste etc etc. You name it, men have always been the cause of trouble. Looming discomfort in the shapes of power shortages, transport strikes, food shortages …. none of these would be happening if it wasn’t for men. Our nurses would be well paid and blooming, posties would be whistling contentedly to our doorsteps with the Christmas mail, Ukraine would be at peace with its mighty neighbour … but no. Men have done nothing but bring bad news and consternation. And it takes a woman to recognise this blindingly obvious fact. How many times have you heard a man say the world would be a much better place without men? Exactly … only a woman would have the awareness and foresight to actually recognise what’s been going on for a long, long time, let alone put the sentiment into words.
But ladies be aware that help is at hand. Maybe not immediately, probably not for quite a while yet, but ultimately and if you can wait long enough. There is a chance that you will inherit the earth without the irritation and interference of those who (allegedly) wear the trousers. And all because of the gradual decline and possible eventual demise of that miserable biological symbol of male dominance, the Y chromosome. As fabled masculinity goes, the Y chromosome is anything but strong and enduring, a mere pale shadow of its macho reputation, unlike the female X chromosome. It does however contain the essential SRY gene which determines whether an embryo will develop as male (XY – which sounds a bit dithery) or female (XX – full bore woman). In comparison to the X chromosome with its abundance of genes, the Y chromosome is not actually a necessity. Women have managed perfectly well without one for years, as they have without that other distinguishing male feature, the prostate.
It appears that over time and perhaps in response to popular female demand, the Y chromosome has degenerated to the extent that modern males have a full X but only a shrivelled, wimpy Y chromosome, compared to women with two normal lusty X chromosomes. This decline has been relatively slow but consistent, such that researchers have been able to estimate when the Y chromosome will disappear from the sex scene completely. Now 4.6 million years may sound like a long time to wait, but compared to the 3.5 billion years life has existed on Earth it is but the blink of an eye. As any woman would be quick to point out, the reason for this decline is the fault of the male, arising from a fundamentally flawed design compared to a female. The X chromosome exists in the human cell as two copies, whereas the deficient Y chromosome has but the one copy to be passed down from fathers to sons, and in this form it cannot achieve genetic recombination which eliminates damaging gene mutations and eventual degeneration.
For those of you anxiously expecting a degree of unwanted tenderness in the nether regions, there is some hope that Y chromosomes are developing convincing mechanisms to at last slow the rate of gene degeneration. The expected riposte from your nearest and dearest of “too little, too late” may not bring much in the way of comfort and they may indeed be proven correct, but nevertheless there are signs detected by researchers of a possible plateauing of the decline. In some studies there is evidence of gene amplification whereby the Y chromosome has rearranged itself to form multiple copies of genes that promote healthy functionality and mitigate gene loss. Furthermore it has been demonstrated that unusual palindromic DNA sequences have developed, allowing damaged genes to be repaired using a healthy gene as a template. So, some relief at hand, possibly. Phew.
There is still considerable learned debate within the scientific community (eg, 18th International Chromosome Conference, Manchester, 2011) as to whether the Y chromosome will actually disappear or not, and strangely the main protagonists appear to be women: Prof Jenny Graves from Australia leading the charge for male extinction, and Dr Jenn Hughes of the USA arguing the opposite. Graves based her conclusion on three main premises: evidence elsewhere among animals and plants that Y chromosomes degrade inexorably; it appears that there is practically nothing left of the original human Y chromosome; and there is ample evidence that in some rodent species the Y chromosome has completely disappeared (or “gone nuts” as the good Professor so eloquently puts it in succinct scientific terminology). Hughes on the other hand was equally adamant that males have some hope yet because: the Y chromosome is still with us; the human Y chromosome has added several different genes over the course of its history, many of which have generated copies of themselves, without losing any genes since human and monkey lineages diverged a few million years ago; and most of the genes on the Y chromosome have undergone purifying selection as humans have evolved.
The debate continues, but what if the prophets of doom are right and Ms Graves wins the argument between the two Jennifers? Is this the doomsday scenario and the final grave for men? Even if the Y chromosome does eventually disappear for good it doesn’t necessarily mean that males themselves are on the way out. In those species where the Y chromosome has been completely lost, both females and males are still necessary for reproduction but the SRY gene (which determines genetic masculinity) has moved to a different chromosome. That’s the potential good news. The not-so-good news is that the new sex-determining chromosome with the SRY gene then starts the process of degeneration all over again, due to the same lack of recombination ability that doomed the previous Y chromosome.
Then there’s advancing technology to be taken into account. The human Y chromosome, whilst necessary for reproduction, contains very little else of use (a sentiment often expressed in other, non-scientific quarters), and could therefore be replaced by means of genetic engineering. This would allow, for example, same-sex female couples to conceive and bring down the last great bastion of male dominance. However, scientists believe that such developments of an artificial replacement for the Y chromosome would not necessarily stop the current practice of natural reproduction, which no doubt will be welcomed by many ….. unless of course it’s made compulsory. But in any event it may never happen, and even if it did, there are far more pressing concerns to worry about in the meantime.