The aryl hydrocarbon receptor is indispensable for dioxin-induced defects in sexually-dimorphic behaviors due to the reduction in fetal steroidogenesis of the pituitary-gonadal axis in rats

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Graphical abstractMany forms of the toxic effects produced by dioxins and related chemicals take place following activation of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR). Our previous studies have demonstrated that treating pregnant rats with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), a highly toxic dioxin, attenuates the pituitary expression of gonadotropins to reduce testicular steroidogenesis during the fetal stage, resulting in the impairment of sexually-dimorphic behaviors after the offspring reach maturity. To investigate the contribution of AHR to these disorders, we examined the effects of TCDD on AHR-knockout (AHR-KO) Wistar rats. When pregnant AHR-heterozygous rats were given an oral dose of 1 μg/kg TCDD at gestational day (GD) 15, TCDD reduced the expression of pituitary gonadotropins and testicular steroidogenic proteins in male wild-type fetuses at GD20 without affecting body weight, sex ratio and litter size. However, the same defect did not occur in AHR-KO fetuses. Further, fetal exposure to TCDD impaired the activity of masculine sexual behavior after reaching adulthood only in the wild-type offspring. Also, in female offspring, not only the fetal gonadotropins production but also sexual dimorphism, such as saccharin preference, after growing up were suppressed by TCDD only in the wild-type. Interestingly, in the absence of TCDD, deleting AHR reduced masculine sexual behavior, as well as fetal steroidogenesis of the pituitary-gonadal axis. These results provide novel evidence that 1) AHR is required for TCDD-produced defects in sexually-dimorphic behaviors of the offspring, and 2) AHR signaling plays a role in gonadotropin synthesis during the developmental stage to acquire sexual dimorphism after reaching adulthood.

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