Effects of selective and combined activation of estrogen receptor α and β on reproductive organ development and sexual behaviour in Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica)
Excess estrogen exposure of avian embryos perturbs reproductive organ development in both sexes and demasculinizes the reproductive behaviors of adult males. We have previously shown that these characteristic effects on the reproductive organs also can be induced by exposure of Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) embryos to selective agonists of estrogen receptor alpha (ERα). In contrast, the male copulatory behavior is only weakly affected by developmental exposure to an ERα agonist. To further elucidate the respective roles of ERα and ERβ in estrogen-induced disruption of sexual differentiation, we exposed Japanese quail embryos in ovo to the selective ERα agonist 16α-lactone-estradiol (16αLE2), the selective ERβ agonist WAY-200070, or both substances in combination. The ERα agonist feminized the testes in male embryos and reduced cloacal gland size in adult males. Furthermore, anomalous retention and malformations of the Müllerian ducts/oviducts were seen in embryos and juveniles of both sexes. The ERβ agonist did not induce any of these effects and did not influence the action of the ERα agonist. Male copulatory behavior was not affected by embryonic exposure to either the ERα- or the ERβ-selective agonist but was slightly suppressed by treatment with the two compounds combined. Our results suggest that the reproductive organs become sexually differentiated consequent to activation of ERα by endogenous estrogens; excessive activation of ERα, but not ERβ, during embryonic development may disrupt this process. Our results also suggest that the demasculinizing effect of estrogens on male copulatory behavior is only partly mediated by ERα and ERβ, and may rather involve other estrogen-responsive pathways.