Androgens Mediate Sex-Dependent Gonadotropin Expression During Late Prenatal Development in the Mouse
Central organization of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis is initiated during fetal life. At this critical time, gonadal hormones mediate sex-specific development of the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, which then dictates reproductive physiology and behavior in adulthood. Although studies have investigated the effects of prenatal androgens on central factors influencing gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) release, the impact of fetal androgens on gonadotrope function has been overlooked. In the current study, we demonstrated that gonadotropin gene expression and protein production were robustly elevated in female mice compared with males during late fetal development and that this sex difference was dependent on fetal androgens. Treatment of dams from embryonic day (E)15.5 to E17.5 with testosterone, dihydrotestosterone (DHT), or the androgen antagonist flutamide eliminated the sex difference at E18.5. Specifically, flutamide relieved the suppression in male gene expression, elevating the level to that of females, whereas testosterone or DHT attenuated female gene expression to male levels. The gonadotrope population is equivalent in males and females, and gonadotropic cells in both sexes express androgen receptors, suggesting that androgen-dependent transcriptional regulation can occur in these cells in either sex. Studies using mouse models lacking GnRH signaling show that GnRH is necessary for enhanced gonadotropin expression in females and is therefore required to observe the sex difference. Collectively, these data suggest that circuits controlling GnRH input to the fetal pituitary are unrestrained in females yet robustly inhibited in males via circulating androgens and demonstrate plasticity in gonadotropin synthesis and secretion in both sexes depending on the androgen milieu during late prenatal development.