Effects of relatively low levels of mono-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate on cocultured Sertoli cells and gonocytes from neonatal rats

Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 1998 Dec;153(2):258-65. doi: 10.1006/taap.1998.8550.


Di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), one of the abundant man-made environmental chemicals, induces testicular damage in both developing and adult animals. However, the nature and mechanism underlying the action of phthalates on testicular development remain largely unexplored. In the present study, we used cocultures of neonatal Sertoli cells and gonocytes (precursors of spermatogonia) to characterize in detail the effects of mono-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (MEHP; the active metabolite of DEHP) on these cells and to explore the underlying mechanism(s). Sertoli cells and gonocytes were isolated from rat pups on the 2nd day after birth, cocultured, and exposed to MEHP at concentrations of 0.01, 0.1, or 1.0 microM, or to 0.5% DMSO (vehicle control), or 10 microM DEHP (negative control) for a total of 48 h. We found that exposure to MEHP induced gonocyte detachment from the Sertoli cell monolayers in a time- and dose-dependent manner. When exposed to 1.0 microM MEHP, many gonocytes started to detach after 12 h of exposure and most gonocytes were lost during the media change at 24 h. Gonocyte detachment was also observed in cocultures treated with 0.1 microM MEHP for 24 h of exposure, but not in cultures treated with 0.01 microM MEHP for 48 h. Detached gonocytes were viable as indicated by their ability to exclude trypan blue. Furthermore, when proliferation of cultured Sertoli cells was detected by BrdU labeling and subsequently quantified, we found that exposure to 0.1 or 1.0 microM MEHP for 48 h resulted in a decrease in labeling indices of 33.6 and 83.6%, respectively, compared to the vehicle control (p < 0.01), while the labeling index was unchanged by treatment with 0.01 microM MEHP. In addition, we also tested the potential effect of MEHP on FSH-stimulated Sertoli cell proliferation by simultaneously treating cultures with 200 ng/ml human FSH and different concentrations of MEHP for 48 h. Exposure to 0.1 or 1.0 microM MEHP resulted in decreases of 24.2 and 74.2%, respectively, in FSH-stimulated Sertoli cell proliferation (p < 0. 01). Furthermore, MEHP also inhibited dibutyl cAMP-stimulated Sertoli cell proliferation, regardless of whether dibutyl cAMP was added to the cultures before or at the same time as MEHP. Finally, addition of FSH or dibutyl cAMP had no effect on MEHP-induced gonocyte detachment, and none of the observed effects on either Sertoli cells or gonocytes were detected in control cultures treated with 0.5% DMSO only or with 10 microM DEHP. Therefore, short exposure to low levels of MEHP disrupted adhesion of gonocytes to Sertoli cells and inhibited both basal and FSH-stimulated Sertoli cell proliferation in a dose-dependent manner. The lowest effective dose of MEHP in vitro was 0.1 microM, which is about 10- to 1, 000-fold lower than the dose shown to affect Sertoli cells from prepubertal animals. Moreover, our data indicate that MEHP impairs division of neonatal Sertoli cells by acting at a post-cAMP site in the FSH-response pathway or via a mechanism independent of FSH. These data provide direct new evidence that relatively low levels of MEHP disrupt Sertoli cell-gonocyte physical interactions and suppress Sertoli cell proliferation in neonates via mechanisms specific to neonatal testis where the foundations of adult fertility are established. The results also highlight the neonatal period of testicular development as one particularly sensitive to environmental chemicals.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Bucladesine / pharmacology
  • Cell Division / drug effects
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Diethylhexyl Phthalate / analogs & derivatives*
  • Diethylhexyl Phthalate / pharmacology
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Drug Labeling
  • Follicle Stimulating Hormone / pharmacology
  • Gonads / drug effects*
  • Gonads / pathology
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sertoli Cells / drug effects*
  • Sertoli Cells / pathology


  • Bucladesine
  • Follicle Stimulating Hormone
  • Diethylhexyl Phthalate
  • mono-(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate