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Open Access Review

The differential role of androgens in early human sex development

Olaf Hiort

Author Affiliations

Division of Experimental Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes, University of Lübeck, Lübeck, Germany

Department of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine, University of Lübeck, Ratzeburger Allee 160, 23560, Lübeck, Germany

BMC Medicine 2013, 11:152  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-152

Published: 24 June 2013

Abstract

Sexual development in humans is only partly understood at the molecular level. It is dependent on genetic control primarily induced by the sex chromosomal differences between males and females. This leads to the development of the gonads, whereby afterwards the differentiation of the apparent phenotype is controlled by hormone action. Sex steroids may exert permanent and temporary effects. Their organizational features of inducing permanent changes in phenotype occur through genetic control of downstream genes. In this, androgens are the key elements for the differentiation of male internal and external genitalia as well as other sexual organs and general body composition, acting through a single androgen receptor. The androgen receptor is a nuclear transcription factor modulating DNA transcription of respective target genes and thereby driving development and growth in a stringent manner. The specificity of androgen action seems to be a strictly time-controlled process with the androgen receptor acting in concert with different metabolites and an array of cofactors modulating the cellular response and thereby permanently altering the phenotype of any given individual. For every cell programmed by androgens, a specific ‘androgen response index’ must be proposed.

Keywords:
Androgen insensitivity; Androgen receptor; Androgens; Disorders of sex development; Genetics; Sex development