Brain feminization requires active repression of masculinization via DNA methylation

Bridget M. Nugent, Christopher L. Wright, Amol C. Shetty, Georgia E. Hodes, Kathryn M. Lenz, Anup Mahurkar, Scott J. Russo, Scott E. Devine, Margaret M. McCarthy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

287 Scopus citations


The developing mammalian brain is destined for a female phenotype unless exposed to gonadal hormones during a perinatal sensitive period. It has been assumed that the undifferentiated brain is masculinized by direct induction of transcription by ligand-activated nuclear steroid receptors. We found that a primary effect of gonadal steroids in the highly sexually dimorphic preoptic area (POA) is to reduce activity of DNA methyltransferase (Dnmt) enzymes, thereby decreasing DNA methylation and releasing masculinizing genes from epigenetic repression. Pharmacological inhibition of Dnmts mimicked gonadal steroids, resulting in masculinized neuronal markers and male sexual behavior in female rats. Conditional knockout of the de novo Dnmt isoform, Dnmt3a, also masculinized sexual behavior in female mice. RNA sequencing revealed gene and isoform variants modulated by methylation that may underlie the divergent reproductive behaviors of males versus females. Our data show that brain feminization is maintained by the active suppression of masculinization via DNA methylation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)690-697
Number of pages8
JournalNature Neuroscience
Issue number5
StatePublished - 28 Apr 2015


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