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The promiscuous estrogen receptor: evolution of physiological estrogens and response to phytochemicals and endocrine disruptors


Many actions of estradiol (E2), the principal physiological estrogen in vertebrates, are mediated by estrogen receptor-α (ERα) and ERβ. An important physiological feature of vertebrate ERs is their promiscuous response to several physiological steroids, including estradiol (E2), Δ5-androstenediol, 5α-androstanediol, and 27-hydroxycholesterol. A novel structural characteristic of Δ5-androstenediol, 5α-androstanediol, and 27-hydroxycholesterol is the presence of a C19 methyl group, which precludes the presence of an aromatic A ring with a C3 phenolic group that is a defining property of E2. The structural diversity of these estrogens can explain the response of the ER to synthetic chemicals such as bisphenol A and DDT, which disrupt estrogen physiology in vertebrates, and the estrogenic activity of a variety of plant-derived chemicals such as genistein, coumestrol, and resveratrol. Diversity in the A ring of physiological estrogens also expands potential structures of industrial chemicals that can act as endocrine disruptors. Compared to E2, synthesis of 27-hydroxycholesterol and Δ5-androstenediol is simpler, leading us, based on parsimony, to propose that one or both of these steroids or a related metabolite was a physiological estrogen early in the evolution of the ER, with E2 assuming this role later as the canonical estrogen. In addition to the well-studied role of the ER in reproductive physiology, the ER also is an important transcription factor in non-reproductive tissues such as the cardiovascular system, kidney, bone, and brain. Some of these ER actions in non-reproductive tissues appeared early in vertebrate evolution, long before mammals evolved.

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