(OPINION) The extinction of the Y chromosome may result in new species of humans. That isn’t the plot for a dystopian sci-fi film, but genuine scientific theory.

We were all taught that the X and Y genes determine sex. Women have a pair of XX chromosomes, and men XY. But what you might not have been taught is that the Y chromosome is much smaller, carrying around 55 genes compared to roughly 900 on the X.

All embryos are technically female until around 12 weeks, when a gene on the Y chromosome kicks in and male development starts (hence why men have nipples).


However, it seems the Y chromosome wasn’t always so small – and that’s where the problem lies. It’s shrinking – and some scientists worry it could disappear altogether. One of them, Professor Jenny Graves, explained why, through the lens of the platypus.

‘In platypus, the XY pair is just an ordinary chromosome, with two equal members,’ she said, writing for The Conversation. ‘This suggests the mammal X and Y were an ordinary pair of chromosomes not that long ago.

‘In turn, this must mean the Y chromosome has lost 900 to 55 active genes over the 166 million years that humans and platypus have been evolving separately. That’s a loss of about five genes per million years. At this rate, the last 55 genes will be gone in 11 million years.’

Okay, so that may not sound like an imminent existential crisis, but others argue the Y chromosome’s lifespan could be between a few thousand years and infinity.

Humans are not the only species to have faced a Y chromosome crisis, however. Two branches of the rodent family have lost theirs, and are still around today. Two species of mole vole in Eastern Europe are the first, and while scientists know they have very special genes, they don’t know what determines the sex of each furry critter. (READ MORE)