School of Medicine

New UCI-led study finds that your genetic sex determines the way your muscle “talks” to other tissues in your body

Genetic sex determines way muscle talks to other tissues
UCI School of Medicine
University of California, Irvine-led study identifies sex-specific circuits of muscle signaling to other tissues, and that the organs and processes muscle impacts are markedly different between males and females.

Irvine, CA – May 31, 2022 – A new University of California, Irvine-led study identifies sex-specific circuits of muscle signaling to other tissues and that the organs and processes muscle impacts are markedly different between males and females. This new discovery provides insight into how muscle functions, such as exercise, promote healthy longevity, metabolism and improve cognition. 

The study, titled, “Genetic variation of putative myokine signaling is dominated by biologic sex and sex hormones,” published in eLife, is the first to evaluate how genetic architecture influences muscle signaling to other tissues, highlighting that sex and estrogens are critical determinants of these processes.

“Muscle is critical for maintaining metabolic state and disruption of muscle function is a hallmark of diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” said senior author Marcus M. Seldin, PhD, assistant professor of biological chemistry at UCI School of Medicine. 

Muscles secrete proteins called myokines, which play roles in a variety of processes by interacting with other tissues. Essentially, myokines allow skeletal muscles to communicate with organs such as the kidneys, the liver or the brain, which is essential for the body to keep its metabolic balance. Some of the process myokines are involved include inflammation, cancer, the changes brought about by exercise, and even cognition. Despite the clear relevance of myokines to so many physiological outcomes, the way these proteins are regulated and their effects are not well understood.

For this study, the research team performed a survey of genetic correlations focused on myokine gene regulation, muscle cell composition, cross-tissue signaling and interactions with genetic sex in humans. While expression levels of a majority of myokines and cell proportions within skeletal muscle showed little relative differences between males and females, nearly all significant cross-tissue enrichments operated in a sex-specific or hormone-dependent fashion; in particular, with estradiol. These sex- and hormone-specific effects were consistent across key metabolic tissues: liver, pancreas, hypothalamus, intestine, heart, visceral and subcutaneous adipose tissue.  This study highlighted a few examples such as that muscle signals more to the pancreas in females, compared to males where liver is dominant.   

“We already know that skeletal muscle plays an integral role in coordinating physiologic homeostasis.  In this study, we sought to understand how muscle interacts with metabolic tissues and illustrate the importance of considering the effects of genetic sex and sexual hormones when studying metabolism,” said Seldin. 

Moving forward, the research team plans to generate cell-based systems to evaluate some of the new hormones uncovered as part of this study and investigate why they signal differently between sexes.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

About the UCI School of Medicine: Each year, the UCI School of Medicine educates more than 400 medical students, and nearly 150 doctoral and master’s students. More than 700 residents and fellows are trained at UCI Medical Center and affiliated institutions. The School of Medicine offers an MD; a dual MD/PhD medical scientist training program; and PhDs and master’s degrees in anatomy and neurobiology, biomedical sciences, genetic counseling, epidemiology, environmental health sciences, pathology, pharmacology, physiology and biophysics, and translational sciences. Medical students also may pursue an MD/MBA, an MD/master’s in public health, or an MD/master’s degree through one of three mission-based programs: Health Education to Advance Leaders in Integrative Medicine (HEAL-IM), Leadership Education to Advance Diversity-African, Black and Caribbean (LEAD-ABC), and the Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community (PRIME-LC). The UCI School of Medicine is accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Accreditation and ranks among the top 50 nationwide for research. For more information, visit