For citation purposes: Pellegrini M, Acconcia F, Marino M. Endocrine disruptors: a gender affair. OA Biology 2013 Dec 01;1(1):5.

Critical review


Endocrine disruptors: a gender affair

M Pellegrini, F Acconcia, M Marino,

Authors affiliations

(1) Department of Science, University Roma Tre, Viale G. Marconi 446, I-00146 Roma, Italy

(2) INBB-National Laboratory of Endocrine Disruptors, Roma, Italy

* Corresponding author Email:



The increase in non-communicable diseases in humans and wildlife over the past 40 years indicates an important role of the environment in disease aetiology. In particular, a huge amount of literature demonstrates the role of environmental endocrine disrupting chemicals in the pathogenesis of several diseases. Nowadays, it is clear that fundamental principles of endocrinology must be applied to the design and execution of studies on endocrine disrupting chemicals to be cognizant that the specific actions of individual hormones often change with development and ageing, they may be different in males and females, and may be mediated by different receptor isoforms expressed in different tissues or at different life stages. These statements are particularly true when assessing the hazard of endocrine disrupting chemicals against oestrogen and androgen actions in that these hormones are crucial determinants of sex-related differences in anatomical, physiological, and behavioural traits which characterise male and female physiology.

This review aims to dissect the role exerted by endocrine disrupting chemicals in modulating androgen and oestrogen receptor activities to define the possible sex-related responses to these compounds. Data discussed here lead to a paradigm shift that challenges the concept that female organs are sensitive only to oestrogens (and anti-oestrogens), and male organs are sensitive only to androgens (and anti-androgens) because the pathways of sex steroid hormone biosynthesis as well as androgen and oestrogen response elements are found in both sexes. Thus, an overall estrogenic effect would occur in males exposed to endocrine disrupting chemicals, which could change the male hormonal milieu assured by a characteristic high ratio of androgen signals with respect to oestrogen signals. The opposite could also be envisioned in females.


Data on endocrine disrupting chemical action mechanisms are still unclear, confused and sometimes contrasting. Molecular studies in vitro and with in vivo animal models of both sexes are needed to identify pathways for endocrine disrupting chemical influence on sex steroid target tissues. In addition, studies on endocrine disrupting chemicals on several of these systems are much underrepresented, and these fields need to be expanded. These experimental approaches can surely highlight endocrine disrupting chemical disrupting action mechanism(s) in the future.

Licensee OA Publishing London 2013. Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY)