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How Does Human Genitalia Form?

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In a study published on Wednesday, November 5 in the journal Nature, researchers at Harvard Medical School began to unravel how human genitals form. They are using various biomedical techniques, such as examining which genes are flipped on during embryonic development, to Frankenstein-like surgeries in which they performed transplants to see whether they could trigger genitals to bud in unusual spots.

They found that genitals develop from the same cells that give rise to hind legs in lizards or that form the remnants of limb buds in snakes. In mammals and birds, a set of cells closer to the tail give rise to genitalia. They also found the process of genitalia formation is similar between those creatures, triggered by the same basic genetic programs and signals. That process is similar to the way limbs form, suggesting that genitals and limbs share their evolutionary origins.

Patrick Tschopp, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard who led the research, said that is common for babies born with limb malformations, usually have malformations in their genitalia.

“It’s clearly really basic research, mostly about evolution and development. But what is interesting is it has been known in the medical field that babies that are born with malformations in their limbs often also have malformations in their genitalia. We knew there was some sort of genetic link between the two, and this could provide some information about where these genetic links are.”

 

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