Estrogens are synonymous with fertility and infertility in mammals. Our knowledge of the biological actions of estrogens, however, is incomplete. Three recent developments have thrown new light on the actions of estrogens in mammalian reproduction that will lead to a greater understanding of their functions. They are (a) the identification of a second estrogen receptor, called ERbeta, (b) the identification of ligand-specific ER coactivators and (c) mouse models with targeted disruption of the genes encoding both ER and the aromatase enzyme. These models provide for the first time animals which are either unable to respond to endogenous or exogenous estrogens (ER 'knockouts'), or can respond to exogenous estrogen but do not make endogenous estrogen (aromatase 'knockout' or ArKO). Furthermore, the ArKO mouse has provided a model to study the effects on the ovary of exogenous estrogens of plant and synthetic origin that are of clinical relevance. The data show that estrogens are essential for fertility but not for survival after birth or for the formation of the reproductive tract. This commentary focuses on the roles of estrogen in folliculogenesis and in the maintenance of the ovarian somatic cell phenotype in the mouse. We also hypothesize that the ERalpha and ERbeta may subserve the proliferative and differentiative actions of estrogen, respectively, within a follicle. In summary, estrogen is obligatory for normal folliculogenesis beyond the antral stage and for the maintenance of the female phenotype of the somatic cells within the ovaries. This clearly demonstrates a major role for sex steroids in somatic cell differentiation in the gonads of eutherian mammals and challenges the central paradigm that the ovary is the default gonad, arising due to the absence of testicular defining signals. Evidence is also provided for the plasticity of the adult female gonad. Understanding the mechanisms of estrogen actions will provide an insight into the regulation of reproductive disorders afflicting women today, notably ovarian dysfunction and the menopause.
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