The alternate pathway of androgen metabolism and window of sensitivity

J Endocrinol. 2023 Aug 1;258(3):e220296. doi: 10.1530/JOE-22-0296. Print 2023 Sep 1.


Since the discovery in 1968 that dihydrotestosterone (DHT) is a major mediator of androgen action, a convincing body of evidence has accumulated to indicate that the major pathway of DHT formation is the 5α-reduction of circulating testosterone in androgen target tissues. However, we now know that DHT can also be formed in peripheral tissues by the oxidation of 5α-androstane-3α,17β-diol (adiol). This pathway is responsible for the formation of the male phenotype. We discuss the serendipitous discovery in the tammar wallaby of an alternate pathway by which adiol is formed in the testes, secreted into plasma and converted in peripheral tissues to DHT. This alternate pathway is responsible for virilisation of the urogenital system in this species and is present in the testes at the onset of male puberty of all mammals studied so far. This is the first clear-cut function for steroid 5α-reductase 1 in males. Unexpectedly, the discovery of this pathway in this Australian marsupial has had a major impact in understanding the pathophysiology of aberrant virilisation in female newborns. Overactivity of the alternate pathway appears to explain virilisation in congenital adrenal hyperplasia CAH, in X-linked 46,XY disorders of sex development. It also appears to be important in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) since PCOS ovaries have enhanced the expression of genes and proteins of the alternate pathway. It is now clear that normal male development in marsupials, rodents and humans requires the action of both the classic and the alternate (backdoor) pathways.

Keywords: adiol; alternate testosterone synthesis pathway; androstanediol; backdoor pathway; male programming window; tammar wallaby; virilisation.

MeSH terms

  • Androgens* / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Australia
  • Dihydrotestosterone
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Macropodidae / metabolism
  • Male
  • Testosterone* / metabolism
  • Virilism


  • Androgens
  • Testosterone
  • Dihydrotestosterone