Background: Androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) comprises a range of phenotypes from male infertility to complete feminization. Most individuals with AIS carry germline mutations of the androgen receptor (AR) that interfere with or ablate its function. As genital fibroblasts retain expression of the AR in vitro, we used genital skin fibroblasts from normal males and 46,XY females with complete AIS due to known AR mutations to gain insights into the role of the AR in human genital differentiation.
Results: Using DNA microarrays representing 32,968 different genes, we identified 404 transcripts with significant differences in transcription levels between genital skin fibroblasts cultured from normal and AIS-affected individuals. Gene-cluster analyses uncovered coordinated expression of genes involved in key processes of morphogenesis. On the basis of animal studies and human genetic syndromes, several of these genes are known to have specific roles in genital differentiation. Remarkably, genital fibroblasts from both normal and AIS-affected individuals showed no transcriptional response to dihydrotestosterone treatment despite expression of the AR.
Conclusions: The results suggest that in addition to differences in the anatomic origin of the cells, androgen signaling during prenatal development contributes to setting long-lasting, androgen-independent transcriptional programs in genital fibroblasts. Our findings have broad implications in understanding the establishment and the stability of sexual dimorphism in human genital development.