Environmental, parental and gestational factors that influence the occurrence of hypospadias in male patients

J Pediatr Urol. 2015 Feb;11(1):12-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jpurol.2014.10.003. Epub 2015 Feb 3.


Objective: Hypospadias is a congenital defect, which affects normal development of the male urogenital external tract. In this malformation, the urethral orifice of the penis is positioned ventrally, thus interfering with normal urination and creating, in some adults, problems during sexual intercourse. Heritability of hypospadias has been shown in some reports, and the abnormality has been associated with the presence of mutations in one of the genes involved in urogenital development. However, even for patients who were born in families with a higher incidence rate of this defect, no evident genetic alteration could be identified in known genes, indicating that the list of loci involved is still incomplete. To further complicate matters, recent reports also underline that epigenetic changes, without any identifiable gene sequence mutation, may be involved in gene function impairment. Therefore, the inheritance of most hypospadias cases is not evident, suggesting that the genetic background is not the only cause of this malformation; indeed, the majority of hypospadias cases are classified as sporadic and idiopathic.

Materials and methods: Evidence has accumulated highlighting the role of the environment and of its relationships with the genome in the etiology of this abnormality. In particular, the interaction between some chemicals, which are able to mimic endogenous molecules such as sexual hormones--for this reason called endocrine disrupting compounds (EDC)--and specific receptors has been extensively investigated during the pregnancy. Additionally, several articles have shown that parental and gestational factors play a significant role too. Indeed, physiological alterations, such as body weight of the mother and/or of the newborn, mother's diabetes, impaired father fertility, and exposure of one parent to job-related pollutants, show in many cases a direct correlation with hypospadias incidence. The overall prevalence of this condition has been studied in many countries, suggesting that at least in some periods and/or in specific populations there are detectable fluctuations, probably mirroring the different natural environments. However, many articles present data that do not agree with these findings and, consequently, most causes of hypospadias are still highly debated.

Results: In this review, we summarize the developmental steps involved in urogenital tract formation, with a particular emphasis on the genes that most frequently are associated with this condition, or that are subject to environmental stress, or that may be the targets of hormone-like, exogenous molecules. Then, we make an overview of the identified factors able to impair the function of important genes, even in the absence of their mutations, including those for which contradictory reports have been published. Finally, we propose an explanation of sporadic cases of hypospadias that reconciles these contradictions and suggest some steps for moving forward in the research focused on this condition.

Conclusion: We hypothesize that most patients develop hypospadias because of gene-environment interactions acting on polymorphic genes that, in the absence of environmental stimuli, would otherwise cause no developmental anomaly during urogenital development.

Keywords: Disorders of sex development; Genetic polymorphisms; Gene–environment interaction.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Gene-Environment Interaction*
  • Humans
  • Hypospadias / etiology*
  • Male