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Androgen and estrogen receptor expression in the developing human penis and clitoris


To better understand how the human fetal penis and clitoris grows and remodels, we undertook an investigation to define active areas of cellular proliferation and programmed cell death spatially and temporally during development of human fetal external genitalia from the indifferent stage (8 weeks) to 18 weeks of gestation. Fifty normal human fetal penile and clitoral specimens were examined using macroscopic imaging, scanning electron microscopy and immunohistochemical localization for the cellular proliferation and apoptotic markers, Ki67 and Caspase-3. A number of hot spots of cellular proliferation characterized by Ki67 localization are present in the penis and clitoris especially early in development, most notably in the corporal body, glans, remodeling glanular urethra, the urethral plate, the roof of the urethral groove and the fully formed penile urethra. The 12-fold increase in penile length over 10 weeks of growth from 8 to 18 weeks of gestation based on Ki67 labelling appears to be driven by cellular proliferation in the corporal body and glans. Throughout all ages in both the developing penis and clitoris Ki67 labeling was consistently elevated in the ventral epidermis and ventral mesenchyme relative to the dorsal counterparts. This finding is consistent with the intense morphogenetic activity/remodeling in the ventral half of the genital tubercle in both sexes involving formation of the urethral/vestibular plates, canalization of the urethral/vestibular plates and fusion of the urethral folds to form the penile urethra. Areas of reduced or absent Ki67 staining include the urethral fold epithelium that fuses to form the penile tubular urethra. In contrast, the urethral fold mesenchyme is positive for Ki67. Apoptosis was rarely noted in the developing penis and clitoris; the only area of minimal Caspase-3 localization was in the epithelium of the ventral epithelial glanular channel remodeling.

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