To Cull or Not To Cull? Considerations for Studies of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

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The power of animal models is derived from the ability to control experimental variables so that observed effects may be unequivocally attributed to the factor that was changed. One variable that is difficult to control in animal experiments is the number and composition of offspring in a litter. To account for this variability, artificial equalization of the number of offspring in a litter (culling) is often used. The rationale for culling, however, has always been controversial. The Developmental Origins of Health and Disease concept provides a new context to evaluate the pros and cons of culling in laboratory animal studies, especially in the context of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Emerging evidence indicates that culling, especially of large litters, can drastically change the feeding status of a pup, which can result in compensatory growth with long-term consequences for the animal, including increased risk of cardio-metabolic diseases. Similarly, culling of litters to intentionally bias sex ratios can alter the animal's behavior and physiology, with effects observed on a wide range of outcomes. Thus, in an attempt to control for variability in developmental rates, culling introduces an uncontrolled or confounding variable, which itself may affect a broad spectrum of health-related consequences. Variabilities in culling protocols could be responsible for differences in responses to endocrine-disrupting chemicals reported across studies. Because litter sex composition and size are vectors that can influence both prenatal and postnatal growth, they are essential considerations for the interpretation of results from laboratory animal studies.

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