Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology, 2011, 2, 1-7 ABB
doi:10.4236/abb.2011.21001 Published Online February 2011 (
Published Online February 2011 in SciRes.
Sensory neurons in the spinal cord of nominal female embryos
in the marine turtle Lepidochelys olivacea respond to shifts in
incubation temperature: implications for temperature
dependent sex determination
Francisco Jiménez-Trejo1, Leonora Olivos-Cisneros2, Julieta Mendoza-Torreblanca3, Sofía
Díaz-Cintra4, Esperanza-Meléndez-Herrera5, Armida Báez-Saldaña2, Patricia Padilla Cortés6,
Gabriel Gutiérrez-Ospina2, Alma Lilia Fuentes-Farías5*
1Departamento de Biología, Facultad de Química, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México D.F., México 04510;
2Departamento de Biología Celular y Fisiología, Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de
México, México D.F., México 04510;
3Departamento de Neuroquímica, Instituto Nacional de Pediatría, México, DF., México 04530;
4Departamento de Neurobiología del Desarrollo y Neurofisiología, Instituto de Neurobiología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de
México, Campus UNAM-Juriquilla, Juriquilla, Querétaro México AP.1-1141;
5Laboratorio de Invertebrados y Ecofisiología Animal, Facultad de Biología, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo,
Morelia, Michoacán, México 58040;
6Unidad de Cromatografía Líquida de Alta Resolución, Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de
México, México D.F., México 04510.
Email: *
Received 22 November 2010; revised 30 November 2010; accepted 3 December 2010.
Gonadal determination in marine turtles depends on
incubation temperature. The mechanisms that spark
off this process remain unclear. Previously, we pro-
posed that sensory nerves reaching the gonadal pri-
mordium in nominal female embryos of Lepidochelys
(L) olivacea may sense and signal incubation tem-
perature. These nerves could later trigger ovarian
determination by releasing neurotransmitters in a
code constructed based on the thermal information
(Gutierrez-Ospina et al., Acetylcholinesterase-posi-
tive innervation is present at the undifferentiated
stages of the sea turtle Lepidochelys olivacea embryo
gonads: implications for temperature-dependent sex
determination, J. Comp. Neurol. 410 (1999) 90-98).
The hypothesis briefly described, however, has been
recently refuted under weak theoretical grounds and
experimental misinterpretations (see introduction).
Here, we present preliminary results that show that
nominal female embryos have sensory neurons lo-
cated in the dorsal horn laminae I and II of the lum-
bar spinal cord that display increased c-Fos-like im-
muno-staining after being incubated either at 15C or
50C. Because these spinal neurons are the primary
central target of dorsal root ganglion neurons that
innervate the urogential crest, these observations
keep open the possibility that gonada l sensory nerves
indeed signal thermal information that could later be
used to trigger or instruct ovarian specification in
marine turtles.
Keywords: Reptiles; Ovarian Determination; c-Fos;
Incubation Temperature; Sensory Neurons
Sex determination in marine turtles depends on incuba-
tion temperature [1]. In general, low (26-27C) or high
(32-33C) incubation temperatures give rise to males or
females, respectively [2,3]. Sexual differentiation may
be re-directed if eggs are switched from one incubation
temperature to the other during the thermo-sensitive pe-
riod of sex determination [3]. As this period progresses,
the effect of shifting the eggs between incubation tem-
peratures on sex determination wanes until fully disap-
pearing [3]. The mechanisms underlying temperature
dependent sex determination (TSD) in reptilian species
have been the subject of intense research and debate
over the past several decades. As a result, it is now
widely accepted that incubation temperature channels
gonadal, and likely other organs [4], determination
and/or differentiation in part by regulating the activity of
F. J. Trejo et al. / Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology 2 (2011) 1-7
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. ABB
steroidogenic enzymes and the local production of sex-
ual steroids [1,5-7]. Also, recent evidence supports that
incubation temperature may modulate the expression of
sex determining genes in vertebrate species that display
TSD [8-11]. In spite of the progress achieved, the
mechanism by which thermal information is translated
and funneled towards the activation of the genomic-
biochemical pathways that ultimately lead to TSD re-
mains elusive (for a critical review see [12].
Three, likely complementary, hypotheses have been
put forward to explaining how TSD might be triggered.
In one of these scenarios, it is assumed that there are
temperature-sensitive promoters that induce or repress
the expression of gonadal genes whose products are key
regulators of the gene cascades and/or biochemical
pathways that determine gonadal fate [1]. Unfortu-
nately, no empirical evidence has been published so far
supporting this notion [12]. The second hypothesis
elaborates on the existence of gonadal biochemical
pathways that are rendered sensitive to incubation tem-
perature by means of metabolic intermediaries (e.g., CO2)
whose cellular concentrations shift depending on the
incubation temperature [4]. Although some experimental
evidence suppo rts this notion, the fact that the synthesis,
degradation and/or the activity of fundamental enzymes
may shift rapidly as incubation temperature does it in
embryos of poikilo thermic species [13-15], suggests that
this kind of responses may not be tightly controlled by
specific sex-determining molecular cascades [16,17].
The third hypothetical scenario calls for the participa-
tion of the nervous system. In this model, temperature
responsive sensory nerve fibers located within the go-
nads could signal thermal information and locally re-
lease neurotransmitters after being stimulated [18]; sen-
sory nerves are long known to display efferent functions
[19,20]. The idea just described has been recently re-
futed [6-8] based on the observation that isolated cul-
tured L. olivacea gonads either maintain or down regu-
late sox-9 expression when incubated at masculinizing
or feminizing temperatures, respectively (although see
[21] for conflicting results). We believe, nonetheless,
that this conclusion is undermined by observations
showing that in some vertebrates 1) nerve fibers and
terminals are closely associated with embryonic, ovarian
estrogen-producing interstitial cells [22-25]; 2) cultured
embryonic gonads retain this innervation for several
days after being severed from the central nervous system
[24,25]; 3) synaptic terminals remain functional and re-
sponsive for several days in vitro after being separated
from their neuronal origin specially in tu rtles [26-28]; 4)
neurotransmitter release in isolated terminals is sens itive
to temperature [29,30]; and 5) aromatase gene transcrip-
tion and enzymatic activity may be regulated by cate-
cholaminergic, dopaminergic and glutamatergic inputs
Hence, in this work we intended to re-open the possi-
bility that gonadal sensory innervation signals thermal
information by showing neuro nal activation in th e dorsal
horn of the lumbar spinal cord following thermal stimu-
lation in L. olivacea nominal female embryos before
ovarian specification takes place. Nominal female em-
bryos were used because sensory innervation is readily
established between the lumbar spinal cord and the uro-
gential before ovarian determination is triggered [18].
2.1. Animals and Tissue Sampling
The experiments were performed using eggs collected in
La Escobilla beach (96°27’16’’W, 15°40’36’’N), Oaxaca,
México. The eggs were transferred to the laboratory in
vermiculite-made artificial nests. Once in the laboratory,
a total of 16 eggs were placed in an oven at 33C until
the embryos reached the stage 23-24 of development;
three embryos taken randomly were used to corroborate
the developmental stage based on external morphologi-
cal features [3]. Then, a group of the eggs was switched
from 33C to 15C (n = 5). Other group was changed
from 33C to 50C (n = 5) during half an hour and then
returned to 33C for 30 minutes. This physiologically
meaningful temperature range was defined based upon
the discrimination features, the physiological responses
and the psychophysical properties of warm and cold re-
ceptors in mammals [33], and considering the range of
incubation temperature [34] and of the ocean water in
which turtles normally navigate [35]. Also, experiments
conducted in avian eggs have revealed that one hour of
incubation in a temperature different from the standard
base line incubation temperature is sufficient to modify
various embryonic metabolic parameters [36]. By the
end of the 30 minutes re-acclimation period, the em-
bryos of both groups were rapidly dissected and fixed in
buffered paraformaldehyde (4%) at 4C overnight. Con-
trol eggs (n = 3) were kept at 33C throughout the ex-
periment and their embryos were processed as described
before. The following day, the embryos were transferred
to a solution containing sucrose (20%) at 4C until they
sank two days later. The embryos were then embedded
in OCT compound, frozen in 2-methyl butane
pre-chilled with dry ice and cut (10 µm) entirely in a
coronal plane using a cryostat. One section every 100µm
was sampled and mounted onto gelatin coated slides and
process through immunofluorescence (see below). In
addition, a batch of hatchlings (n = 3) was used to col-
lect brain samples for testing the specificity of the anti-
body through west er n bl ot a n al y ses.
F. J. Trejo et al. / Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology 2 (2011) 1-7
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. ABB
2.2. Western Blot and Antibody Specificity
L. olivacea hatchlings (10 days old) were euthanized
with pentobarbital (45mg / Kg of body weight) and de-
capitated. The forebrain was rapidly dissected and
placed into microcentrifuge tube containing RIPA buffer
(25 mM Tris•HCl, 150 mM NaCl, 1% NP-40, 1% so-
dium deoxycholate, 0.1% SDS, pH 7.6), supplemented
with the complete protease inhibitor cocktail used ac-
cording to the manufacturer’s instructions (Roche Ap-
plied Science). The samples were homogenized by soni-
cation (40W) and centrifuged at 12,000 revolutions per
minute for 20 minutes at 4C. The supernatants were
collected and the protein content was estimated by using
the bicinchoninic acid protein assay (Pierce) read at 560
nanometers. An aliquote of 75 µ icrograms of protein per
sample was electrophoresed through one dimension
SDS-polycacrilamide gels (12.5%) at 150 volts during
90 minutes at 4C. Proteins were transferred to nitrocel-
lulose membranes using a semi-dry system (BioRad)
during 50 minutes at 0.3A of constant current. The qual-
ity of the protein transference was evaluated by using
Ponceau’s staining. After destaining, nitrocellulose mem-
branes were incubated with blocking solution (5% non-
fat milk, 3% goat serum, 0.1% Tween-20 in TBS). The
membrane was then incubated with rabbit anti-human
c-Fos polyclonal primary antibodies (Santa Cruz sc-52)
overnight at room temperature (1:200 in blocking solu-
tion). This antibody recognizes a highly conserved
amino-terminal sequence of c-Fos (residues 4-17) that
appear to be present in turtles and amphibians [37,38].
After a gently wash in TBS added with 0.1% Tween-20,
the membranes were incubated with the corresponding
biotin-conjugated secondary antibody (AP187B, Chemi-
con) during 2 hours (1 :800 in blocking solution) at roo m
temperature. Then, the membranes were washed and in-
cubated with avidin-peroxidase for 1 hour at room tem-
perature following the supplier’s recommendations
(Vector Laboratories). Peroxidase activity was revealed
using a chemo-luminescent substrate according to the
manufacturer’s guidelines (Immobilon Western, Milli-
pore) and documentation was performed using the Gel
Logic 1500 system (Kodak Molecular Imaging).
2.3. Immunofluorescence
Tissue sections were incubated with blocking serum
containing bovine albumin (1%) and triton X-100 (0.3%)
in phosphate buffer (0.1M, pH 7.4) for 3 hours at room
temperature. After three 15 minute washes, the sections
were incubated with primary antibodies raised against
c-Fos diluted 1:1000 in blocking serum at 4C for 12
hours. After three washes, the sections were incubated
with a secondary antibody goat anti-rabbit IgG coupled
to fluorescein diluted 1:200 in blocking serum for three
hours at room temperature. The incubation with the pri-
mary antibody was omitted in control experiments to
rule out false positive resu lts. Fo llowing the last wash ing
step, sections were coverslipped with anti-fading mount-
ing medium (Dako). Slides were then observed in an
Optiphot Nikon epifluorescence microscope and digital
images were taken using a Nikon coolpix digital camera.
Figures showing immunocytochemical and western blot
results were elaborated by using Adobe Photoshop CS2
(version 9. 0. 2).
3.1. Antibody Specificity
Figure 1 illustrates a representative Western blot show-
ing the single protein band that was immuno-reactive for
c-Fos in samples of the L. olivacea hatchlings forebrain.
Such a band displayed an ap proximate molecular weight
of 40kDa, a weight that is similar to that published for
one of the c-Fos nuclear isoforms reported in the frog
Rana esculenta [38].
3.2. Spinal Cord c-Fos Immunoreactivity
Once established the specificity of the antibodies based
on molecular weight equivalence, we evaluated whether
the intensity and location of c-Fos-like immuno-staining
shifted in neurons located in the dorsal horn of the em-
bryonic lumbar spinal cord at the ontogenetic stage 23-24,
before ovarian specification occurs [3]; these spinal
Figure 1. Digital image of a re-
presentative western blot st a in e d
for c-Fos obtained after running
samples obtained from the L.
olivacea hatchlings forebrain.
Lane 1: MW-Molecular Weight
Delete the dash in molecular
markers; Lane 2: FB-Forebrain
samples; Lane 3: Background
staining associated with the se-
condary antibody (asterisks; 2
AC). The arrow indicates where
the c-Fos immunoreactive band
is identified.
F. J. Trejo et al. / Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology 2 (2011) 1-7
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. ABB
neurons are the primary central target of dorsal root gan-
glion neurons that innervate the urogential crest [18].
Two patterns of cellular staining were consistently ob-
served. Embryos exposed to 15°C had neurons exhibit-
ing cytoplasmic staining (Figure 2(a)). In contrast, when
embryos were exposed to 50°C, the majority of
neurons displayed nuclear staining (Figure 2(b)). In our
hands, embryos kept at their original incubation tem-
perature did not show appreciable expression of c-Fos in
the spinal cord (Figure 2(c)). Omission of the primary
antibody resulted in a negative c-Fos immunostaining
(not shown). Finally, even though the pattern of cyto-
logical staining differed between embryos exposed to
high or low incub ation temperatures, the distribu tion and
relative amount of immunopositive neurons was similar
between groups; numerous c-Fos like immunopositive
neurons essentially occupied laminae I and II of the dor-
sal horn at the lumbar segments of the spinal cord.
Sex determination in marine turtles depends on incuba
tion temperature. Although the molecular and biochemi-
Figure 2. Digital photomicro-
graphs showing examples of
the cellular patterns observed
for c-Fos staining in the dorsal
horn of the spinal cord follow-
ing the exposure of embryos at
15C (a) or 50C (b). Nuclear
(arrows) and cytoplasmic (ar-
rowheads) staining are indi-
cated. (c) Illustrates c-Fos ba sal
staining in the spinal cord of
non-stimulated embryos. Scale
Bar = 10 µm.
cal processes that channel ovarian and testicular deter-
mination during TSD are now better understood, the
precise mechanisms by which it is triggered remain un-
clear. We have previously suggested that sensory nerves
located inside the undifferentiated gonad of nominal L.
olivacea female embryos might signal thermal informa-
tion and, upon activation, might release neurotransmit-
ters that could turn on the cascade of events leading to
sex determination [18]. In this work, we provide evi-
dence that strengthens this possibility by showing that
sensory neurons located in the dorsal hor n of the lumbar
spinal cord respond to shifts in incubation temperature,
as monitored by the increment of the staining intensity
of a c-Fos-like protein. The spinal levels where c-Fos-
like positive neurons were mapped precisely in sites that
receive primary sensory afferents incoming from the
urogenital crest [18]. Because sensory nerves exert ef-
ferent functions on their targets [19,20], we believe this
primordial connectivity might be an important compo-
nent of the machinery triggering ovarian differentiation,
even in the absence of activation of upper neural struc-
tures involved in thermal information processin g.
In spite of the implications that our results have on
TSD conceptions, we must be prudent in interpreting the
present data. Given the protocol used for eliciting neu-
ronal activation, we cannot ru le out that the increment in
the intensity of c-Fos like immuno-staining observed in
spinal cord sensory neurons might in part reflect heat
stress-associated responses; this distinction may be cru-
cial because c-Fos may exert pro-apoptotic actions [39].
However, in favor of our experimental design 1) it has
been documented that increments of c-Fos availability
can also counteract apoptosis and promote cell differen-
tiation [40]; 2) Also increment in c-Fos availability and
nuclear translocation facilitates cell proliferation [41]; 3)
The thermal values used to stimulate the embryos were
carefully selected based on what we know on the dis-
crimination features, physiological properties and psy-
chophysical responses of warm and cold receptors in
mammals, the best characterized receptors in the animal
kingdom [33]. We also considered the temperature range
of the nests [e.g., 34] and of the ocean water in which
marine turtles normally navigate [35]. Even so, we
would concord that a definitive answer requires an un-
questionable molecular identification of the neuronal
phenotype that is involved specifically in thermal infor-
mation processing in marine turtle embryonic spinal
cord, as it has been shown for central neurons in
Caenorhabditis elegans based on LIM homeobox gene
expression [42].
An intriguing observation is related with the differen-
tial distribution of c-Fos inmunostaining in the cyto-
plasm or nuclear compartments of the activated spinal
F. J. Trejo et al. / Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology 2 (2011) 1-7
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. ABB
cord neurons, dep ending on the temper ature und er which
the embryos were incubated. Indeed, cytoplasmic stain-
ing was consistently observed in embryos incubated at
15C, whereas nuclear staining was observed in those
kept at 50C. Although this result could be consid ered as
irrelevant or even art factual, c-Fos-like cytoplasmic
and/or nuclear staining following neuronal activation is
not uncommon in phyla different from mammals [38,
41,43-47]. Indeed, it has been shown that c-Fos cyto-
plasmic staining reflects a reduced rate of translocation
to the nucleus due to decreased metabolic rates [41,44],
increased phospholipid metabolism [47] or diminished
hormonal stimulation [38]. Further studies are necessary
to explore each one of these possibilities.
Authors thank to Luz Lilia Jiménez Rico, Jesús Ramírez-Santos, Mar-
tha Carrasco and Raymundo Reyes for their technical expertise and
guidance and for administrative support. We are also indebted to Ale-
jandro Marmolejo for his professional advice in eggs’ care and han-
dling. Authors are grateful to Dr. David Riddle for careful editing and
helpful criticisms. LOC and EMH are holders of scholarships from the
Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACyT). This work
was supported by grants from CONACyT 82879 and 94312 to GGO
and CIC UMSNH (8.37) to ALFF.
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