Steroid production in Leydig cells is stimulated mainly by the pituitary luteinizing hormone, which leads to increased expression of genes involved in steroidogenesis, including the gene encoding the steroidogenic acute regulatory (STAR) protein. Mono(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (MEHP), the active metabolite of the widely used plasticizer DEHP, is known to disrupt Leydig steroidogenesis but its mechanisms of action remain poorly understood. We found that MEHP caused a significant reduction in hormone-induced steroid hormone production in two Leydig cell lines, MA-10 and MLTC-1. Consistent with disrupted cholesterol transport, we found that MEHP represses cAMP-induced Star promoter activity. MEHP responsiveness was mapped to the proximal Star promoter, which contains multiple binding sites for several transcription factors. In addition to STAR, we found that MEHP also reduced the levels of ferredoxin reductase, a protein essential for electron transport during steroidogenesis. Finally, we tested new plasticizers as alternatives to phthalates. Two plasticizers, dioctyl succinate and 1,6-hexanediol dibenzoate, had no significant effect on hormone-induced steroidogenesis. Our current findings reveal that MEHP represses steroidogenesis by affecting cholesterol transport and its conversion into pregnenolone. We also found that two novel molecules with desirable plasticizer properties have no impact on Leydig cell steroidogenesis and could be suitable phthalate replacements.
Keywords: DEHP; Leydig cells; Star; endocrine disrupters; environmental toxicology; green plasticizers; phthalates; steroidogenesis; testis.