When testosterone gets down and dirty

Testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, or androgen, migrates in the environment in ways that could pose a threat to water quality, according to three new reports.

Soil physicist Francis X.M. Casey of North Dakota State University in Fargo and his colleagues have found that, despite their expectations, soil bacteria don’t necessarily trap and degrade testosterone. The scientists put testosterone atop 8-centimeter-high columns of rich Midwestern soil and then moved water through the dirt. Intact testosterone exited the bottom of the columns, indicating that substantial amounts of the hormone evaded bacterial degradation.

The result was a surprise for two reasons, says Casey. First, the researchers had found that the female hormone estrogen mostly breaks down under the same conditions. Second, the team’s preliminary experiments in test tubes had indicated that testosterone strongly attaches to soil particles and can be degraded.

“Testosterone migration through the soil exists as a potential danger to . . . water quality,” the scientists conclude in an upcoming issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

Their findings may help explain observations in a paper to appear in a forthcoming Environmental Health Perspectives by Ana M. Soto of the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and her colleagues. Those researchers confirm androgenic activity–and, to a lesser extent, estrogenic activity–in Nebraska rivers downstream of cattle feedlots (SN: 1/5/02, p. 10: Hormones: Here’s the Beef).

As environmental pollutants, even tiny concentrations of hormones can wreak havoc. Indeed, another paper slated to appear in Environmental Health Perspectives finds defeminization and demasculinization of fish in those Nebraska waters. Soto, Edward F. Orlando of St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City, and their colleagues attribute these effects to androgens or a combination of androgens and estrogens.


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Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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