Developmental reprogramming of reproductive and metabolic dysfunction in sheep: native steroids vs. environmental steroid receptor modulators


Vasantha Padmanabhan, Room 1109, 300 N. Ingalls Building, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA. E-mail:


The inappropriate programming of developing organ systems by exposure to excess native or environmental steroids, particularly the contamination of our environment and our food sources with synthetic endocrine disrupting chemicals that can interact with steroid receptors, is a major concern. Studies with native steroids have found that in utero exposure of sheep to excess testosterone, an oestrogen precursor, results in low birth weight offspring and leads to an array of adult reproductive/metabolic deficits manifested as cycle defects, functional hyperandrogenism, neuroendocrine/ovarian defects, insulin resistance and hypertension. Furthermore, the severity of reproductive dysfunction is amplified by excess postnatal weight gain. The constellation of adult reproductive and metabolic dysfunction in prenatal testosterone-treated sheep is similar to features seen in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Prenatal dihydrotestosterone treatment failed to result in similar phenotype suggesting that many effects of prenatal testosterone excess are likely facilitated via aromatization to oestradiol. Similarly, exposure to environmental steroid imposters such as bisphenol A (BPA) and methoxychlor (MXC) from days 30 to 90 of gestation had long-term but differential effects. Exposure of sheep to BPA, which resulted in maternal levels of 30–50 ng/mL BPA, culminated in low birth weight offspring. These female offspring were hypergonadotropic during early postnatal life and characterized by severely dampened preovulatory LH surges. Prenatal MXC-treated females had normal birth weight and manifested delayed but normal amplitude LH surges. Importantly, the effects of BPA were evident at levels, which approximated twice the highest levels found in human maternal circulation of industrialized nations. These findings provide evidence in support of developmental origin of adult reproductive and metabolic diseases and highlight the risk posed by exposure to environmental endocrine disrupting chemicals.