As steroids and steroid-like compounds accumulate in the environment, it has become important to understand how low-dose exposure affects reproductive function. Ovary-intact sheep were used in a multigenerational study, to determine whether chronic exposure to low levels of estrogen disrupts reproductive function and behavior. We assessed parameters of reproductive performance in control and postnatally estradiol-treated females (Generation 1, G1), and their offspring (Generation 2, G2). In the G1 animals, 17beta-estradiol (E) was administered continuously from 4 wk of age at two doses via subcutaneous implants (ultralow E [<1 pg/ml in circulation, n = 8] or low E [1–3 pg/ml, n = 8]). Both doses delayed puberty; low E also produced pronounced prepubertal and seasonal anestrus hypogonadotropism, and delayed the onset of the second breeding season. All G1 animals conceived and produced offspring (G2), the treatment of which resulted from continuous maternal exposure during pregnancy and lactation. Behavioral observations of G2 females revealed that low prenatal E modestly masculinized play behavior and increased the frequency of attempts to displace competitors relative to ultralow E and control animals. The timing and magnitude of the LH surge also differed in prepubertal low prenatal E females relative to the controls, although these differences were not evident when retested at one year of age. These findings support the hypothesis that chronic exposure to physiologic amounts of exogenous estrogens has multigenerational effects on behavior and neuroendocrine function. Despite these disruptive steroid actions, ovarian cyclicity and fertility are not invariably compromised, pointing to an impressive resiliency of the reproductive axis to insult by exogenous estrogenic compounds.
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