Zearalenone (ZEN) is a non-steroid estrogen mycotoxin produced by numerous strains of Fusarium which commonly contaminate cereals. After oral administration, ZEN is reduced via intestinal and hepatic metabolism to α- and β-zearalenol (αZEL and βZEL). These reduced metabolites possess estrogenic properties, αZEL showing the highest affinity for ERs. ZEN and reduced metabolites cause hormonal effects in animals, such as abnormalities in the development of the reproductive tract and mammary gland in female offspring, suggesting a fetal exposure to these contaminants.
In our previous work, we have suggested the potential impact of ZEN on placental cells considering this organ as a potential target of xenobiotics. In this work, we first compared the in vitro effects of αZEL and βZEL on cell differentiation to their parental molecule on human trophoblast (BeWo cells). Secondly, we investigated their molecular mechanisms of action by investigating the expression of main differentiation biomarkers and the implication of nuclear receptor by docking prediction. Conversely to ZEN, reduced metabolites did not induce trophoblast differentiation. They also induced significant changes in ABC transporter expression by potential interaction with nuclear receptors (LXR, PXR, PR) that could modify the transport function of placental cells. Finally, the mechanism of ZEN differentiation induction seemed not to involve nuclear receptor commonly involved in the differentiation process (PPARγ). Our results demonstrated that in spite of structure similarities between ZEN, αZEL and βZEL, toxicological effects and toxicity mechanisms were significantly different for the three molecules.