Reproductive and developmental disorders are the most sensitive toxic effects caused by 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). TCDD is thought to produce many, if not all, of these toxic effects by impairing steroidogenesis and/or steroid action during the prenatal or early postnatal stages. However, the mechanism of the antisex steroid effect of TCDD is not well understood. This study revealed that steroidogenic acute-regulatory protein (StAR), a key transporter of cholesterol for steroidogenesis, in the testes of fetal rats are down-regulated by maternal exposure to TCDD. It was also shown that many mRNAs of steroidogenetic enzymes, including cytochromes P450 11A1, 17, and 11B1 and 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, are reduced in fetuses of TCDD-treated dams in a testis-specific manner. The same was also observed for the expression of estrogen-α receptors and androgen receptors. Whereas StAR expression was not affected by TCDD in cultured fetal testis, the fetal serum content of LH, a pituitary regulator of StAR, was significantly reduced by TCDD. In agreement with this, pituitary expression of LHβ subunit mRNA in fetuses was reduced by maternal exposure to TCDD, whereas the α-subunit remained unchanged. The reduction in LHβ is suggested to occur by a mechanism different from the reduction in the GnRH level. Direct supply of exogenous gonadotropin to TCDD-exposed fetuses completely abolished the reduction of StAR expression. Taken together, these results demonstrate that TCDD impairs steroidogenesis in the fetus by targeting pituitary gonadotropins.
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