Exposure of rodents to phthalates is associated with developmental and reproductive anomalies, and there is concern that these compounds may be causing adverse effects on human reproductive health. Testosterone (T), secreted almost exclusively by Leydig cells in the testis, is the primary steroid hormone that maintains male fertility. Leydig cell T biosynthesis is regulated by the pituitary gonadotropin LH. Herein, experiments were conducted to investigate the ability of di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) to affect Leydig cell androgen biosynthesis. Pregnant dams were gavaged with 100 mg−1 kg−1 day−1 DEHP from Gestation Days 12 to 21. Serum T and LH levels were significantly reduced in male offspring, compared to control, at 21 and 35 days of age. However, these inhibitory effects were no longer apparent at 90 days. In a second set of experiments, prepubertal rats, from 21 or 35 days of age, were gavaged with 0, 1, 10, 100, or 200 mg−1 kg−1 day−1 DEHP for 14 days. This exposure paradigm affected Leydig cell steroidogenesis. For example, exposure of rats to 200 mg−1 kg−1 day−1 DEHP caused a 77% decrease in the activity of the steroidogenic enzyme 17β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, and reduced Leydig cell T production to 50% of control. Paradoxically, extending the period of DEHP exposure to 28 days (Postnatal Days 21–48) resulted in significant increases in Leydig cell T production capacity and in serum LH levels. The no-observed-effect-level and lowest-observed-effect-level were determined to be 1 mg−1 kg−1 day−1 and 10 mg−1 kg−1 day−1, respectively. In contrast to observations in prepubertal rats, exposure of young adult rats by gavage to 0, 1, 10, 100, or 200 mg−1 kg−1 day−1 DEHP for 28 days (Postnatal Days 62–89) induced no detectable changes in androgen biosynthesis. In conclusion, data from this study show that DEHP effects on Leydig cell steroidogenesis are influenced by the stage of development at exposure and may occur through modulation of T-biosynthetic enzyme activity and serum LH levels.
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