Biochemical and molecular changes at the cellular level in response to exposure to environmental estrogen-like chemicals

J Toxicol Environ Health. 1997 Jan;50(1):1-29. doi: 10.1080/009841097160573.


Estrogen-like chemicals are unique compared to nonestrogenic xenobiotics, because in addition to their chemical properties, the estrogenic property of these compounds allows them to act like sex hormones. Whether weak or strong, the estrogenic response of a chemical, if not overcome, will add extra estrogenic burden to the system. At elevated doses, natural estrogens and environmental estrogen-like chemicals are known to produce adverse effects. The source of extra or elevated concentration of estrogen could be either endogenous or exogenous. The potential of exposure for humans and animals to environmental estrogen-like chemicals is high. Only a limited number of estrogen-like compounds, such as diethylstilbestrol (DES), bisphenol A, nonylphenol, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), have been used to assess the biochemical and molecular changes at the cellular level. Among them, DES is the most extensively studied estrogen-like chemical, and therefore this article is focused mainly on DES-related observations. In addition to estrogenic effects, environmental estrogen-like chemicals produce multiple and multitype genetic and/or nongenetic hits. Exposure of Syrian hamsters to stilbene estrogen (DES) produces several changes in the nuclei of target organ for carcinogenesis (kidney): (1) Products of nuclear redox reactions of DES modify transcription regulating proteins and DNA; (2) transcription is inhibited; (3) tyrosine phosphorylation of nuclear proteins, including RNA polymerase II, p53, and nuclear insulin-like growth factor-1 receptor, is altered; and (4) DNA repair gene DNA polymerase beta transcripts are decreased and mutated. Exposure of Noble rats to DES also produces several changes in the mammary gland: proliferative activity is drastically altered; the cell cycle of mammary epithelial cells is perturbed; telomeric length is attenuated; etc. It appears that some other estrogenic compounds, such as bisphenol A and nonylphenol, may also follow a similar pattern of effects to DES, because we have recently shown that these compounds alter cell cycle kinetics, produce telomeric associations, and produce chromosomal aberrations. Like DES, bisphenol A after metabolic activation is capable of binding to DNA. However, it should be noted that a particular or multitype hit(s) will depend upon the nature of the environmental estrogen-like chemical. The role of individual attack leading to a particular change is not clear at this stage. Consequences of these multitypes of attack on the nuclei of cells could be (1) nuclear toxicity/cell death; (2) repair of all the hits and then acting as normal cells; or (3) sustaining most of the hits and acting as unstable cells. Proliferation of the last type of cell is expected to result in transformed cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Cycle / drug effects
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / drug effects*
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / genetics
  • DNA Damage
  • DNA Repair / drug effects
  • Diethylstilbestrol / adverse effects
  • Environmental Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Pollutants / metabolism
  • Estrogens / adverse effects*
  • Estrogens / metabolism
  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Nuclear Proteins / drug effects
  • Nuclear Proteins / metabolism
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Phenols / adverse effects
  • Phenols / metabolism
  • Reproduction / drug effects*


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Estrogens
  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal
  • Nuclear Proteins
  • Phenols
  • Diethylstilbestrol