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Pure Appl. Chem., 2003, Vol. 75, No. 11-12, pp. 1827-1839

Nonmammalian nuclear receptors: Evolution and endocrine disruption

J. W. Thornton

Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403-5289, USA

Most research to identify endocrine-disrupting chemicals and their impacts has relied on mammalian models or in vitro systems derived from them. But nuclear receptors (NRs), the proteins that transduce hydrophobic hormonal signals and are major mediators of endocrine disruption, emerged early in animal evolution and now play biologically essential roles throughout the Metazoa. Nonmammalian vertebrates and invertebrates, many of which are of considerable ecological, economic, and cultural importance, are therefore potentially subject to endocrine disruption by synthetic environmental pollutants.
Are methods that rely solely on mammalian models adequate to predict or detect all chemicals that may disrupt NR signaling? Regulation of NRs by small hydrophobic molecules is ancient and evolutionarily labile. Within and across genomes, the NR superfamily is very diverse, due to many lineage-specific gene and genome duplications followed by independent divergence. Receptors in nonmammalian species have in many cases evolved unique molecular and organismal functions that cannot be predicted from those of their mammalian orthologs. Endocrine disruption is therefore likely to occur throughout the metazoan kingdom, and a significant number of the thousands of synthetic chemicals now in production may disrupt NR signaling in one or more nonmammalian taxa. Many of these endocrine disruptors will not be detected by current regulatory/scientific protocols, which should be reformulated to take account of the diversity and complexity of the NR gene family.