The organs in our body may have a sexual identity of their own. Researchers suggested that the findings can also shed light on why it is that some cancers are more common in women and others in men.
The idea that our organs could be 'male' or 'female' raises the possibility that women and men may need different treatments as a result, reported the team from MRC Clinical Sciences Center (CSC) at Imperial College London which carried out the research in fruit files.
‘The organs in our body may have a sexual identity of their own. This suggests why some cancers are more common in women and others in men.’
"We wanted to ask a very basic question: whether it is just the cells of the sex organs of a fully developed organism that 'know' their sexual identity, or whether this is true of cells in other organs too - and whether that matters," said Irene Miguel-Aliaga who led the research.
To do this, the team examined stem cells in flies' intestines. They used genetic tools that allow them to turn genes 'on' and 'off' specifically in these cells. This allowed them to tailor the cells to be more 'female' or more 'male'.
When the team feminized or masculinized the flies' gut stem cells, this changed the extent to which the cells multiplied. Female, or feminized cells, were better able to proliferate. This enhanced ability appears to allow the intestine in female flies to grow during reproduction.
In the current study, the team found that the effect of feminizing adult gut stem cells was reversible. "If we take a female fly and then in the adult we masculinize the stem cells in the intestine and wait, within three weeks the gut shrinks to the smaller, male-like size," claimed Bruno Hudry who is first author on the paper published in the Nature
The team also found that the female intestine was more prone to tumors. "We suspect there is a trade-off going on. Females need increased plasticity to cope with reproduction but in certain circumstances, that can be deleterious and make the female gut more prone to tumors," the authors noted.
"We have found three genes that are important in the gut stem cells, and are intrigued to know whether these three genes play a similar role in cells outside of the gut in other body tissues as well," added Miguel-Aliaga.
The team is keen to examine these three genes further as further research is needed to see how this finding translates to humans.
"If this intrinsic knowledge held by stem cells is indeed driving the way our organs behave, it could also influence the way these same organs respond to treatment," noted Des Walsh, head of the population and systems medicine board at the MRC.