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Female moles are intersexual while staying fertile, proves complexity of sexual development and natural variation

Historically, the term intersexuality has caused considerable controversy. There was and continues to be a tendency to characterize intersexual phenotypes as pathological conditions. But a new study highlights the complexity of sexual development and how this process can result in a wide range of intermediate manifestations that are a representation of natural variation.

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Historically, the term intersexuality has caused considerable controversy. There was and continues to be a tendency to characterize intersexual phenotypes as pathological conditions. But a new study highlights the complexity of sexual development and how this process can result in a wide range of intermediate manifestations that are a representation of natural variation.

Moles in focus

Moles are special creatures that roam in an extreme habitat. As mammals that burrow deep into the earth, they have forepaws with an extra finger and exceptionally strong muscles. What’s more, female moles are intersexual while retaining their fertility. Typical for mammals, they are equipped with two X chromosomes, but they simultaneously develop functional ovarian and testicular tissues. In female moles, both tissue types are united in one organ, the ovotestis – something that is unique among mammals.

The testicular tissue of the female mole does not produce sperm, but large amounts of the sex hormone testosterone, meaning the females have similarly high levels as the males. Presumably this natural “doping” makes the female moles aggressive and muscular, an advantage for life underground, where they have to dig burrows and fight for resources.

In the study in the journal Science, Berlin scientists are reporting on the genetic peculiarities that lead to this characteristic sexual development in moles. According to the study, it is primarily changes in the structure of the genome that lead to altered control of genetic activity. In addition to the genetic program for testicular development, this also stimulates enzymes for male hormone production in the females.

The study was conducted by an international team co-led by Prof. Stefan Mundlos, research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics (MPIMG) and director at the Institute for Medical Genetics and Human Genetics at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin; and by Dr. Darío Lupiáñez, Research Group Leader at the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB), which is part of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC).

Genomic mechanisms of evolution

“Since Darwin, it has been generally accepted that the different appearances of living organisms are the result of gradual changes in genetic makeup that have been passed onto subsequent generations,” says Mundlos. “But how are DNA changes and their manifestations in the appearance of an organism related in concrete terms, and how can we uncover such changes?”

To pursue this question, the researchers have completely sequenced the genome of the Iberian mole (Talpa occidentalis) for the first time. Moreover, they examined the three-dimensional structure of the genome within the cell. In the nucleus, genes and their associated control sequences form regulatory domains – relatively isolated “neighborhoods” consisting of large regions where DNA sections interact frequently with each other.

“We hypothesized that in moles, there are not only changes in the genes themselves, but particularly in the regulatory regions belonging to these genes,” says Mundlos.

In the course of the moles’ evolution, then not only would individual letters of the DNA have changed, also larger pieces of the genome would have shifted, says the researcher. If segments of DNA move from one location to another, completely new or reorganized regulatory domains can emerge and thus activate new genes and enhance or attenuate their expression.

Program for testicular development

“The sexual development of mammals is complex, although we have a reasonably good idea on how this process takes place,” says Darío Lupiáñez. “At a certain point, sexual development usually progresses in one direction or another, male or female. We wanted to know how evolution modulates this sequence of developmental events, enabling the intersexual features that we see in moles.”

In fact, when comparing the genome to that of other animals and humans, the team discovered an inversion – i.e. an inverted genomic segment – in a region known to be involved in testicular development. The inversion causes additional DNA segments to get included in the regulatory domain of the gene FGF9, which reorganizes the control and regulation of the gene. “This change is associated with the development of testicular tissue in addition to ovarian tissue in female moles,” explains Dr. Francisca Martinez Real, lead author of the study and scientist at the MPIMG as well as the Institute for Medical Genetics and Human Genetics at Charité.

“Nature makes use of the existing toolbox of developmental genes and merely rearranges them to create a characteristic such as intersexuality. In the process, other organ systems and development are not affected.”

The team also discovered a triplication of a genomic region responsible for the production of male sex hormones (androgens), more specifically the androgen production gene CYP17A1. “The triplication appends additional regulatory sequences to the gene – which ultimately leads to an increased production of male sex hormones in the ovotestes of female moles, especially more testosterone,” says Real.

Wild moles and transgenic mice

The highly territorial moles cannot be kept in the laboratory, which particularly challenged the work of the researchers. “We had to do all our research on wild moles,” says Lupiáñez. He and Real spent months in southern Spain collecting samples for their experiments. “However, this drawback also became a strength in our study. Our results are not limited to laboratory animals, but extend our knowledge to wild animals.”

The research group proved that the two genome mutations actually contribute to the special sexuality of female moles by creating a mouse model in which they mimic the genomic changes observed in moles. Of the altered animals, the female mice had androgen levels that were as high as in normal male mice. They were also significantly stronger than their unaltered conspecifics.

Evolution makes use of the genetic toolbox

With moles, the sexes are not that clearly delimited from one another; instead, females move on a spectrum between typically female and typically male phenotypes, i.e., they are intersexual.

“Our findings are a good example of how important the three-dimensional organization of the genome is for evolution,” says Lupiáñez. “Nature makes use of the existing toolbox of developmental genes and merely rearranges them to create a characteristic such as intersexuality. In the process, other organ systems and development are not affected.”

For Mundlos, “historically, the term intersexuality has caused considerable controversy. There was and continues to be a tendency to characterize intersexual phenotypes as pathological conditions. (But) our study highlights the complexity of sexual development and how this process can result in a wide range of intermediate manifestations that are a representation of natural variation.”

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Feelings of anxiety, loneliness widespread among gay, bi, other MSM amid isolation caused by COVID-19

The harm may be more severe among gay and bisexual men, who face disproportionate rates of poor mental health and sexual health outcomes. COVID-19 has exacerbated stress, anxiety and social isolation within our communities.

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Sixty-three percent of gay and bisexual men, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) reported only leaving their home for essentials amid the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting being in isolation has contributed to feelings of anxiety and loneliness, and dissatisfaction with their sex life.

This is according to a new UCLA-led study – “Associations Between Physical Distancing and Mental Health, Sexual Health and Technology Use Among Gay, Bisexual and Other Men Who Have Sex With Men During the COVID-19 Pandemic” by Ian W. Holloway, PhD, MPH, MSW; Alex Garner, BA; Diane Tan, MSPH; Ayako Miyashita Ochoa, JD; Glen Milo Santos, PhD, MPH; and Sean Howell, BS – that was published in the Journal of Homosexuality.

Due to COVID-19, physical distancing measures have been implemented globally. The researchers, nonetheless, recognize the LGBTQIA community – where the respondents for this study belong to – is historically already disproportionately affected by poor health outcomes. And so the COVID-19 restrictions may add to this.

For this study, 10,079 men in 20 countries were surveyed in April and May 2020 on Hornet, a social networking app, which also participated in the research.

Most of the participants were between the ages of 18 and 34 (55.5%), identified as gay (78.6%), were currently employed (67.7%) and had health care coverage (85.4%). In addition, most lived in a large urban center (69.8%) and were not in a relationship at the time of the survey (67.4%).

The study found:

  • Nearly two-thirds of participants (63%) reported only leaving their home for essentials
  • 37% more likely to feel anxious than those who haven’t stayed in
  • 36% more likely to feel lonely
  • 28% more likely to use text messaging to stay connected with others
  • 54% more likely to use video calls to connect with others
  • Risk reduction and telehealth opportunities may alleviate health challenges for GBMSM in the COVID-19 era

“We know that all people are affected by the isolation that can result from physical distancing,” said Holloway. But the concern is that “the harm may be more severe among gay and bisexual men, who face disproportionate rates of poor mental health and sexual health outcomes. COVID-19 has exacerbated stress, anxiety and social isolation within our communities.”

Social networking apps provide an opportunity for people around the world to connect with others, even cultivating a sense of community. As such, according to co-author Garner, “we must invest in interventions that include harm reduction approaches and leverage technology where possible to increase access to necessary health services and strengthen community connections.”

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Transgender, gender non-conforming teens face unique challenges when dating

Young people who are transgender and gender nonconforming face a different set of challenges than peers during these developmental milestones, a new study suggests.

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Experiencing transphobia and abuse, and struggling with the decision to divulge their gender identity throughout their transition. These are what transgender and gender non-conforming (TNGC) adolescents face when dating, according to a study – “Romantic Relationships in Transgender Adolescents: a Qualitative Study” by Adrian C. Araya, Rebecca Warwick, Daniel Shumer and Ellen Selkie – that appeared in Pediatrics.

According to the study, adolescence is a period of identity formation, a time of questioning one’s belonging and one’s role in society, and a shift from family relationship dependence to preference for friendship. It is also recognized as a time of exploration of love and intimacy, which is considered to be critical to development and adjustment.

But young people who are transgender and gender nonconforming face a different set of challenges than peers during these developmental milestones, the study suggests.

For this study, 30 adolescents (18 transmasculine and 12 transfeminine) between the ages of 15 and 20 years were interviewed. Themes included (1) engagement in romantic relationships, (2) disclosure of gender identity and romantic relationships, (3) experience with abusive relationships, and (4) perceived impact of gender-affirming hormone care on romantic experiences.

The study found that:

  • TGNC adolescents are engaged in romantic experiences before and during social and/or medical transitioning and are cultivating relationships through both proximal peers and online connections.
  • There is perceived benefit of gender-affirming hormone care on romantic experiences.
  • Risk of transphobia in romantic relationships impacts the approach that transgender adolescents take toward romance and influences decisions of identity disclosure.
  • TGNC adolescents have experience with relationship abuse in different forms.

The study also noted that romantic pursuit was hampered by transphobia perpetuated by both cisgender and transgender individuals. This transphobia may stem from adhering to gender binary and correlating sex assigned at birth to gender identity.

To deal with this situation, the researchers suggested that providers should incorporate changes in their approach to counseling and screening when caring for TGNC youth.

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Racism, anti-gay and HIV discrimination heighten risk for arrest and incarceration

Discrimination can occur at all stages of criminal justice involvement, from differential enforcement and/or threats of violence by police officers to court proceedings and sentencings.

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Racial discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, and HIV-status discrimination are all associated with risk for criminal justice involvement.

This is according to new research done by Morgan Philbin, PhD, at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and colleagues, and which appears in the journal Stigma and Health.

As it is, there’s recognition that Black men are imprisoned at nearly seven times the rate of White men; sexual minority young adults are nearly three times more likely to report being criminally sanctioned compared to their heterosexual peers; and the rate of HIV among prisoners is multiple times higher than the general population. Discrimination can occur at all stages of criminal justice involvement, from differential enforcement and/or threats of violence by police officers to court proceedings and sentencings.

The researcher, therefore, wanted to look at why Black young men who have sex with men (YMSM) are disproportionately subject to high rates of arrest and incarceration. For this, 465 Black YMSM at risk for HIV in North Carolina were tapped. Participants completed four online surveys over the course of one year to assess the three predictors at baseline and criminal justice involvement at 3, 6, and 12-month follow-up (the study excluded men with criminal justice involvement at baseline). The researchers assessed discrimination through survey questions asking whether participants were, for example, treated with hostility/coldness by strangers, rejected by a potential sexual/romantic partner, denied a place to live, denied a job, and physically assaulted due to their race, sexual orientation; they also explored how individuals living with HIV were treated within their community.

The research found that perceived racism was the strongest predictor of subsequent criminal justice involvement (29% increased odds) followed by perceptions of sexual orientation discrimination (12% increased odds) and HIV discrimination (6% increased odds).

“Discrimination, in this instance related to race, sexual identity and HIV, is an important driver of health and life opportunities because it directly influences physical and mental health outcomes and can constrain access to education, jobs, and housing,” says Philbin. “Perceived discrimination – especially the experience of racism – placed the men in this study at an increased risk for arrest and incarceration.”

For the researchers, to better understand the lived realities of people burdened with overlapping forms of discrimination, “we must account for the compounding nature of these intersecting axes of social inequality,” says Philbin. “We find that experiences of racism and discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status combine to raise these young men’s risk for criminal justice involvement.”

Additional authors include Timothy W. Menza, Oregon Health Authority, Portland; Sara H. Legrand, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina; and Kathryn E. Muessig and Lisa Hightow-Weidman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill.

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Lesbian, gay, bisexual medical students more likely to experience burnout – study

17% of LGB medical students reported high levels of burnout compared to 11.1% of heterosexual students.

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Studies have shown that nearly half of all medical students – at least in the US – report symptoms of burnout, a long-term reaction to stress characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of decreased personal accomplishment. Beyond the personal toll, the implications for aspiring and practicing physicians can be severe, from reduced quality of care to increased risk of patient safety incidents.

According to a study published in JAMA Network Open, students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) are more likely than their heterosexual peers to experience burnout.

“The health and well-being of trainees is intimately linked to the quality of patient care, physician retention, and is key to reducing care inequities,” said lead author Dr. Elizabeth Samuels, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. “Understanding how the current medical training environment impacts lesbian, gay and bisexual medical students is critical for improving their training experience, building and retaining a workforce of LGB physicians, and also delivering optimal care to all patients — especially those who also identify as LGBTQI+.”

Samuels, who is a practicing emergency physician at Rhode Island Hospital and The Miriam Hospital, focused previous research on equity and diversity in the health care workforce and the care of transgender and gender non-conforming people. Data from Association of American Medical Colleges’ annual survey of graduating medical school served as the basis for this study.

The study, conducted in collaboration with researchers from Yale University, is based on data from the 2016 and 2017 AAMC Medical School Graduation Questionnaire, a national survey that includes questions on everything from medical education to financial costs to clinical experiences. In the survey are questions about negative experiences (mistreatment, burnout) and identity, including sexual orientation. Response options include “heterosexual or straight,” “gay or lesbian” and “bisexual.” The study combined the former into the category of LGB. Information about the gender identity of students who identify as transgender or genderqueer was not provided to the researchers for analysis.

In the study’s analysis of 26,123 total responses, 17% of LGB medical students reported high levels of burnout compared to 11.1% of heterosexual students.

Potential causes of burnout include the intensity of medical training, strained finances and unattainable expectations, the authors note in the study. Mistreatment is also a contributing factor, and there has been increased interest in examining its effects on trainees from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in medicine. However, research has yet to focus specifically on LGB medical students.

In the study, LGB students also reported a higher frequency of perceived mistreatment. For example, 27% of LGB students reported being publicly humiliated, compared with 20.7% of heterosexual students; 23.3% reported perceived mistreatment specific to their sexual orientation at least once during medical school, compared with 1% of heterosexual students.

Samuels notes that mistreatment didn’t completely explain the emotional strain experienced by LGB medical students, who were 30% more likely to experience burnout even after adjusting for reported experiences of mistreatment.

The researchers found that LGB students reporting frequent experiences of mistreatment related to their sexual orientation had an 8 times higher likelihood of burnout compared to heterosexual students. This difference was dramatic when mistreatment occurred more frequently, Samuels said. But at lower levels of mistreatment, the differences weren’t as extreme.

“I think this shows people’s resiliency — up to a point,” Samuels said.

Samuels asserts that there are characteristics of medical training, separate from individual experiences of mistreatment, that leads to increased burnout among LGB trainees. After all, previous studies have shown that a high of LGB medical students report concealing their sexual identity during medical school for fear of discrimination. They also report more depression, anxiety, and low self-rated health compared with heterosexual students.

“Layering concerns about homophobia and discrimination on top of the general intensity of medical training can lead not just to burnout, but also to truly deleterious mental health effects,” Samuels said.

These findings underscore the need for continued, comprehensive support and mentorship for LGBTQ medical students, and the importance of institutional culture change to create healthy, diverse, inclusive medical school learning environments.

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PUP Kasarianlan schedules Pride on March 4-6

For PUP Kasarianlan, “it is important that we do not lose sight of the very reasons for our unity— freedom, equality, and empowerment. Now more than ever is the time to come out as one in creating tangible efforts to immerse ourselves in our advocacies.”

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PUP Kasarianlan, the official student organization of Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) for people with diverse SOGIE, has scheduled its annual PUP Pride on March 4, 5 and 6 largely via Zoom.

In a statement, the organization stated that this is “not only… a celebration of love and diversity among people of diverse SOGIE, but it is also a call for everybody to take a stand in our continuous fight for equality and freedom toward a promising future for all of us.”

Themed “Tindig, Laban: Kolektibong Kasarinlan”, this year’s gathering is a continuation of 2020’s “Defying Adversity, Forwarding Advocacy”, which “celebrated the diversity among every Iskolar ng Bayan as we strive to move forward with our advocacies within the community.” This time, though, “we further acknowledge and embrace our differences.”

For PUP Kasarianlan, “it is important that we do not lose sight of the very reasons for our unity— freedom, equality, and empowerment. Now more than ever is the time to come out as one in creating tangible efforts to immerse ourselves in our advocacies. It is not enough that our actions are limited to just raising awareness, there is also a need for us to mobilize and encourage everyone to go out and take our fight to the streets.”

This event also eyes to reach out to legislators to initiate ordinances that would protect the LGBTQIA community against bigotry and discrimination. 

The week-long event includes seminars/forum for basic knowledge of SOGIE, HIV and AIDS, feminism, and timely issues affecting the LGBTQIA Filipino community especially in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. There will also be performances.

For more information, head to PUP Kasarianlan’s Facebook page.

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Gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ widened by COVID-19 pandemic – study

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Let the distance be physical. Image created by Cristina Estanislao. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives - help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Those belonging in minority sectors are greatly affected by Covid-19; more so than others.

This is according to a study by Indiana University which found women, younger individuals, those with lower levels of formal education, and people of color being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study noted that Black adults, for instance, were three times as likely as Whites to report food insecurity, being laid off, or being unemployed during the pandemic. Additionally, residents without a college degree were twice as likely to report food insecurity (compared to those with some college) while those not completing high school are four times as likely to report it, compared to those with a bachelor’s degree.

These patterns persisted even after taking into account employment status and financial hardship before the pandemic, suggesting that the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is being widened by the crisis.

The study found that younger adults and women were also more likely to report economic hardships.

“It is clear that the pandemic has had an extraordinary impact on the economic security of individuals who were already vulnerable and among disadvantaged groups,” said Bernice Pescosolido, co-author of the study. There is, therefore, a “need for strategically deployed relief efforts and longer-term policy reforms to challenge the perennial and unequal impact of disasters.”

Researchers utilized the Person to Person Health Interview Study (P2P) – a statewide representative, face-to-face survey – to interview nearly 1,000 Indiana residents before (October 2018-March 2020) and during the initial stay at home order in (March-May 2020). Their goal was to determine differences in experiences of economic hardship among historically advantaged and disadvantaged groups following the COVID-19 lockdown. The authors measured four self-reported indicators of economic precarity: housing insecurity, food insecurity, general financial insecurity, and unemployment or job loss.

Previous research has shown global crises tend to disproportionally impact those who were already struggling financially, and it takes more vulnerable communities significantly longer to recover from disasters.

In the Philippines, for instance, members of the LGBTQIA community have lamented the effect of COVID-19 on their employment. Worse, government efforts often exclude them because of discriminatory policies.

Many of the Filipino living people living with HIV (many of them members of the LGBTQIA community) also encounter issues due to COVID-19 – e.g. loss of employment, access to treatment/medicines, etc.

“Providing basic resources to all… such as generous unemployment benefits, paid family leave, affordable federal housing and universal preschool will help communities better weather crisis,” said Brea Perry, professor of sociology at IU and co-author of the study. “We need to rethink how we intervene in disasters and also strengthen our social safety net for everyone.”

For the researchers, while the impact of COVID-19 may not be fully understood at this time, rebuilding public health and other social structures will not only assist disadvantaged groups in times of need, it will also help society at large.

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