Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond., B, Biol. Sci. 376 (1833) 20200186 [2021-09-13; online 2021-07-26]
It is a broadly observed pattern that the non-recombining regions of sex-limited chromosomes (Y and W) accumulate more repeats than the rest of the genome, even in species like birds with a low genome-wide repeat content. Here, we show that in birds with highly heteromorphic sex chromosomes, the W chromosome has a transposable element (TE) density of greater than 55% compared to the genome-wide density of less than 10%, and contains over half of all full-length (thus potentially active) endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) of the entire genome. Using RNA-seq and protein mass spectrometry data, we were able to detect signatures of female-specific ERV expression. We hypothesize that the avian W chromosome acts as a refugium for active ERVs, probably leading to female-biased mutational load that may influence female physiology similar to the 'toxic-Y' effect in Drosophila males. Furthermore, Haldane's rule predicts that the heterogametic sex has reduced fertility in hybrids. We propose that the excess of W-linked active ERVs over the rest of the genome may be an additional explanatory variable for Haldane's rule, with consequences for genetic incompatibilities between species through TE/repressor mismatches in hybrids. Together, our results suggest that the sequence content of female-specific W chromosomes can have effects far beyond sex determination and gene dosage. This article is part of the theme issue 'Challenging the paradigm in sex chromosome evolution: empirical and theoretical insights with a focus on vertebrates (Part II)'.