Insights from fully sequencing 43 human Y chromosomes

A stylized image depicting many variations of the letter "Y" symbolizing the research on Y chromosome variation.

Highly challenging to sequence and long overlooked, the human Y chromosome’s contributions to health and disease remain largely unknown. A new paper that presents, for the first time, the complete sequences of multiple human Y chromosomes from lineages from around the globe provides an essential step forward in understanding the roles of the Y chromosome in human evolution and biology.

Even as the field of human genomics forged ahead at an astonishing pace, the Y chromosome— one of the sex chromosomes—has long remained overlooked. It has been postulated that the human sex chromosomes once originated from a pair of structurally similar chromosomes, but subsequently one of the sex chromosomes, the ancestral Y chromosome, underwent significant degradation, losing 97% of its former complement of genes over many millions of years. This peculiar evolutionary trajectory has given rise to speculation that the human Y chromosomes might eventually disappear completely, albeit millions of years from now, and we already observe that some biological males do lose them in dividing cells as they age, with unclear health consequences.

In practical terms, the Y chromosome contains a large proportion of repetitive and heterochromatic (highly condensed, gene-poor and not transcribed to messenger RNA) sequences, making it exceptionally difficult to fully sequence. Using sequencing methods that can cover long, continuous sequences, the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) consortium has now published the first complete Y chromosome assembly from a single individual of European descent in "The complete sequence of a human Y chromosome" (Rhie et al. Nature). At the same time, a team led by Jackson Laboratory (JAX) Professor and The Robert Alvine Family Endowed Chair Charles Lee, Ph.D., FACMG, has assembled Y chromosomes from 43 unrelated males, with nearly half coming from African lineages in "Assembly of 43 human Y chromosomes reveals extensive complexity and variation" (Hallast et al., Nature). Taken together, these two papers provide intriguing insights into human Y chromosomes, reveal the highly variable nature of Y chromosomes across individuals, and provide an important foundation for future studies on how they may be contributing to certain disorders and diseases.

The need for long reads

Standard short-read genomic sequencing technologies require breaking genomic DNA into short (~250-base-long) fragments. These fragments are then reassembled into the full genome of more than 3 billion base pairs across 46 chromosomes in humans. The method is very accurate and works well for most, but not all, of the genome. Almost all “complete” human genome sequences, including the current reference genome sequence (known as GRCh38), are actually only about 90% complete, because it is difficult to assemble the highly repetitive and other complex sections accurately. GRCh38 falls particularly short for the Y chromosome, as it barely assembles half of that chromosome.

As a result, while the much larger and gene-rich other sex chromosome—the X chromosome—has been extensively studied, the Y chromosome has been often overlooked outside of male-based fertility studies. In a significant step forward for the genomics field, scientists from JAX, including first author and JAX Associate Research Scientist, Pille Hallast, Ph.D., with collaborators from Clemson University, Heinrich Heine University (Germany) and more, have now revealed a full picture of the Y chromosome’s key characteristics and differences between individuals for the first time. Of note is the striking variation in size and structure across the 43 Y chromosomes sequenced that covered 180,000 years of human evolution and range from 45.2 million to 84.9 million base pairs in length.

Falling blocks symbolizing the assembly of the fully sequenced Y chromosomes.

The inclusion of 43 different individuals representing diverse Y lineages allowed the researchers to redefine inter-chromosomal region boundaries and identify large-scale variations at an unprecedented resolution and clarity. The study also revealed an unexpected degree of structural variation across the Y chromosomes. For example, half of the euchromatin (gene-rich region) of the sequenced chromosomes carries large recurrent inversions—segments that contain the same nucleotide sequences but oriented in the opposite direction—at a rate much higher than anywhere else in the genome. The study further identified regions of the Y chromosome that demonstrate little single nucleotide variation but show high gene copy number variation for specific gene families. Other gene families tended to maintain their copy numbers, however, consistent with their roles in fertility and normal development.

Incredibly important research for overall health

“Having fully resolved Y chromosome sequences from multiple individuals is essential in order for us to begin to understand how this variation can affect function” says Hallast. “The degree of structural variation between individuals came as a big surprise to me, even though the nucleotide sequences within the Y chromosome genes are comparatively conserved. The variable gene copy numbers in certain gene families and extremely high inversion rates are almost certain to hold significant biological and evolutionary roles.”

The Y chromosome’s contributions to male health are poorly understood. Some unexpected indications of its importance to human health have recently come into focus in two new research studies that collectively implicate the Y chromosome in aggressive features of colorectal and bladder cancers in men. Indeed, one of the studies showed that tumors that had lost the Y chromosomes can more effectively evade T cell immunity, are infiltrated with higher numbers of dysfunctional CD8+ T cells, and are more responsive to anti-PD1 treatments compared to similar tumors retaining the Y chromosome.

“Research is emerging that shows proper Y chromosome gene function is incredibly important for the overall health of men,” says Lee, senior author on the paper. “Our study enables the inclusion of the full Y chromosome in all future studies when sequencing male genomes to understand health and disease.”

Other JAX researchers that contributed to this study include Feyza Yilmaz, Peter A. Audano, Kwondo Kim, Fotios Tsetsos, Jee Young Kwon, Qihui Zhu and Christine R. Beck.

The work was supported in part by a U24 grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute (#HG007497).

To read more about this research, check out the following stories:

New Scientist:
The Daily Beast:
The Scientist: