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A Bozec, F Chuzel, S Chater, C Paulin, R Bars, M Benahmed and C Mauduit

In utero exposure to exogenous anti-androgenic compounds induces a wide range of abnormalities of the reproductive system, including hypospermatogenesis, cryptorchidism and hypospadias. By using rats exposed in utero to the anti-androgenic compound flutamide (0.4, 2 or 10 mg/kg per day), it has been shown that hypospermatogenesis in adult testes could be related to (i) a long-term apoptosis in germ cells but not in somatic Leydig and Sertoli cells as evidenced by the TUNEL approach and (ii) alterations in the mRNA and protein expression of pro- (Bax, Bak, Bid) and anti-apoptotic (Bcl-2, Bcl-w) members of the Bcl-2 family. Indeed, the number of apoptotic germ cells increased with the dose of flutamide administered and the apoptotic germ cells were mainly detected at androgen-dependent stages VII–VIII. Moreover, for the Bcl-2-related proteins that were expressed mainly in the germ cells, a decrease in the levels of anti-apoptotic peptides Bcl-w (60%, P=0.003) and Bcl-2 (90%, P=0.0001) was observed at 2 mg/kg per day flutamide and an increase in levels of the pro-apoptotic Bax (2.3-fold, P=0.0004) was detected at 10 mg/kg per day. In contrast, the levels of pro-apoptotic peptide Bak that was mainly expressed in somatic cells decreased (70%, P=0.0008) at 10 mg/kg per day. Such alterations in Bcl-2-related peptides occurred mainly at the protein level except for Bcl-2 (72%, P=0.0001) and Bak (43%, P=00002) transcripts. Together, these results showed that the apoptosis observed in adult germ cells from rats exposed in utero to flutamide may result from a long-term alteration in the balance between pro- and anti-apoptotic Bcl-2-related molecules in favour of pro-apoptotic proteins. These data further supported the concept of an androgen-dependent fetal programming that is in relation with an alteration of the expression of Bcl-2-related genes/proteins promoting apoptosis in testicular germ cells of adult rats with fetal androgen disruption.