Phytoestrogens and their human metabolites show distinct agonistic and antagonistic properties on estrogen receptor alpha (ERalpha) and ERbeta in human cells

Toxicol Sci. 2004 Jul;80(1):14-25. doi: 10.1093/toxsci/kfh147. Epub 2004 Apr 14.


Phytoestrogens exert pleiotropic effects on cellular signaling and show some beneficial effects on estrogen-dependent diseases. However, due to activation/inhibition of the estrogen receptors ERalpha or ERbeta, these compounds may induce or inhibit estrogen action and, therefore, have the potential to disrupt estrogen signaling. We performed a comprehensive analysis and potency comparison of phytoestrogens and their human metabolites for ER binding, induction/suppression of ERalpha and ERbeta transactivation, and coactivator recruitment in human cells. The soy-derived genistein, coumestrol, and equol displayed a preference for transactivation of ERbeta compared to ERalpha and were 10- to 100-fold less potent than diethylstilbestrol. In contrast, zearalenone was the most potent phytoestrogen tested and activated preferentially ERalpha. All other phytoestrogens tested, including resveratrol and human metabolites of daidzein and enterolactone, were weak ER agonists. Interestingly, the daidzein metabolites 3',4',7-isoflavone and 4',6,7-isoflavone were superagonists on ERalpha and ERbeta. All phytoestrogens tested showed reduced potencies to activate ERalpha and ERbeta compared to diethylstilbestrol on the estrogen-responsive C3 promoter compared to a consensus estrogen response element indicating a degree of promoter dependency. Zearalenone and resveratrol were antagonistic on both ERalpha and ERbeta at high doses. The phytoestrogens enhanced preferentially recruitment of GRIP1 to ERalpha similar to 17beta-estradiol. In contrast, for ERbeta no distinct preference for one coactivator (GRIP1 or SRC-1) was apparent and the overall coactivator association was less pronounced than for ERalpha. Due to their abundance and (anti)-estrogenic potencies, the soy-derived isoflavones, coumestrol, resveratrol, and zearalenone would appear to have the potential for effectively functioning as endocrine disruptors.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cells, Cultured
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / agonists*
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Estrogen Receptor beta / agonists*
  • Estrogen Receptor beta / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Fluorescence Polarization
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Phytoestrogens / metabolism
  • Phytoestrogens / pharmacology*


  • Estrogen Receptor alpha
  • Estrogen Receptor beta
  • Ligands
  • Phytoestrogens