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Am I a Girl, or a Boy?

An Unusual Case of Ambiguous Gender


Leslie G. Wooten
Biology Department
Tallahassee Community College


A baby is born with ambiguous genitalia to parents from the Dominican Republic and is determined to be a female based on general appearance.  At the child's 12-year-old checkup, the parents and the child are distraught as they report to the pediatrician that the "girl" has grown a penis. How could this happen, and what effect will this have on the child? This condition is due to a defective gene that alters the levels of dihydrotestosterone in the developing embryo. At puberty, hormone levels change and the chromosomal male adopts a male appearance. The case can also be used to explore research and treatment possibilities for prostate cancer. This case was developed for an undergraduate molecular biology class comprised of mostly juniors and given during a unit concerning cell signaling and hormones. It can easily be adapted to an introductory biology, anatomy, physiology, or embryology course. 

  • Learn about effacement and dilatation in a normal delivery.
  • Learn what androgens are.
  • Understand what happens in fetal development when there is a disruption of testosterone metabolism.
  • Understand the functions of testosterone and dihydrotestosterone.
  • Learn about the function of 5-α-reductase.
Keywords: Gender; sex; sexual development, sexual differentiation; intersex; ambiguous genitalia; guevedoces; androgen sensitivity; puberty; testosterone; dihydrotestosterone; prostate cancer; benign prostatic hypertrophy
Topical Area: Social issues, Social justice issues
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Dilemma/Decision, Directed, Discussion, Interrupted
Language: English
Subject Headings: Molecular Biology   Cell Biology   Biology (General)   Anatomy   Genetics / Heredity   Biochemistry   Medicine (General)   Developmental Biology  
Date Posted: 3/26/2012
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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