Medical University of South Carolina, Hollings Marine Laboratory, 331 Fort Johnson Road, Charleston, SC 29412, USA; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, College of Natural Resources and the Environment, Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, 101 Cheatham Hall, 310 West Campus Drive, Blacksburg, VA 24060, USA. Electronic address: [Email]
The thyroid gland is sensitive to steroid hormone signaling, and many thyroid disrupting contaminants also disrupt steroid hormone homeostasis, presenting the possibility that thyroid disruption may occur through altered steroid hormone signaling. To examine this possibility, we studied short-term and persistent impacts of embryonic sex steroid exposure on thyroid physiology in the American alligator. Alligators from a lake contaminated with endocrine disrupting contaminants (Lake Apopka, FL, USA) have been shown to display characteristics of thyroid and steroid hormone disruption. Previous studies suggest these alterations arise during development and raise the possibility that exposure to maternally deposited contaminants might underlie persistent organizational changes in both thyroidal and reproductive function. Thus, this population provides a system to investigate contaminant-mediated organizational thyroid disruption in an environmentally-relevant context. We assess the developmental expression of genetic pathways involved in thyroid hormone biosynthesis and find that expression of these genes increases prior to hatching. Further, we show that nuclear steroid hormone receptors are also expressed during this period, indicating the developing thyroid is potentially responsive to steroid hormone signaling. We then explore functional roles of steroid signaling during development on subsequent thyroid function in juvenile alligators. We exposed alligator eggs collected from both Lake Apopka and a reference site to 17β-estradiol and a non-aromatizable androgen during embryonic development, and investigated effects of exposure on hatchling morphometrics and thyroidal gene expression profiles at 5 months of age. Steroid hormone treatment did not impact the timing of hatching or hatchling size. Furthermore, treatment with steroid hormones did not result in detectable impacts on thyroid transcriptional programs, suggesting that precocious or excess estrogen and androgen exposure does not influence immediate or long-term thyroidal physiology.