Retinoids promote penis development in sequentially hermaphroditic snails

Maryna P. Lesoway, Jonathan Q. Henry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sexual systems are surprisingly diverse, considering the ubiquity of sexual reproduction. Sequential hermaphroditism, the ability of an individual to change sex, has emerged multiple times independently across the animal kingdom. In molluscs, repeated shifts between ancestrally separate sexes and hermaphroditism are generally found at the level of family and above, suggesting recruitment of deeply conserved mechanisms. Despite this, molecular mechanisms of sexual development are poorly known. In molluscs with separate sexes, endocrine disrupting toxins bind the retinoid X receptor (RXR), activating ectopic male development in females, suggesting the retinoid pathway as a candidate controlling sexual transitions in sequential hermaphrodites. We therefore tested the role of retinoic acid signaling in sequentially hermaphroditic Crepidula snails, which develop first into males, then change sex, maturing into females. We show that retinoid agonists induce precocious penis growth in juveniles and superimposition of male development in females. Combining RXR antagonists with retinoid agonists significantly reduces penis length in induced juveniles, while similar treatments using retinoic acid receptor (RAR) antagonists increase penis length. Transcripts of both receptors are expressed in the induced penis. Our findings therefore show that retinoid signaling can initiate molluscan male genital development, and regulate penis length. Further, we show that retinoids induce ectopic male development in multiple Crepidula species. Species-specific influence of conspecific induction of sexual transitions correlates with responsiveness to retinoids. We propose that retinoid signaling plays a conserved role in molluscan male development, and that shifts in the timing of retinoid signaling may have been important for the origins of sequential hermaphroditism within molluscs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)122-132
Number of pages11
JournalDevelopmental Biology
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • Crepidula
  • Environmental sex determination
  • Genital development
  • Imposex
  • Tributyltin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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