Estrogens are essential for bone mass accrual but their role before sexual maturation has remained elusive. Using in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry, we investigated the expression of both estrogen receptor (ER) alpha and beta mRNA and protein as well as several mRNAs coding for enzymes involved in sex steroid metabolism (aromatase, type I and II 17 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (17 beta-HSD), steroid sulfatase (STS) and type I 5 alpha-reductase) on sections of tibial metaphyses before (1- and 4-week-old), during (7-week-old) and after (16-week-old) sexual maturation in female and male rats. ER alpha and ER beta mRNA and protein were detected in metaphyseal bone in lining cells, osteoblasts, osteoclasts and some osteocytes with no apparent differences in expression during development or between the sexes. In contrast, aromatase, type I and II 17 beta-HSD and type I 5 alpha-reductase mRNAs were first detected in osteoblasts, osteoclasts and occasionally in osteocytes from sexual maturation (7-week-old rat) and onwards. Only STS was present before sexual maturation. To study the significance of ER alpha and beta expression in bone before sexual maturation when circulating sex steroid levels are low, 26-day-old female and male rats underwent gonadectomy or 17 beta-estradiol (E(2)) supplementation (0.5 mg/21 days) during 3 weeks. Following gonadectomy, trabecular bone volume (TBV) was lower in males (P=0.03) and there was a trend towards reduction in females (P=0.057). E(2) supplementation increased tibial TBV compared with controls in both genders as assessed by Masson-Goldner staining. These data suggest that the presence of ERs in bone cells before sex maturation might be of significance for bone mass accrual. Furthermore, based on the mRNA expression of the crucial enzymes aromatase and type I 17 beta-HSD, we suggest that bone cells in the tibial metaphysis acquire the intrinsic capacity to metabolize sex steroids from sexual maturation onwards. This process may contribute to the beneficial effects of estrogen on bone mass accrual, possibly by intracrinology.
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