Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

 

An excerpt from Chapter 3, Chemical Messengers

 

 
  What is astonishing about vom Saal's wombmate studies is how little it takes to dramatically change the tune. Hormones are exceptionally potent chemicals that operate at concentrations so low that they can be measured only by the most sensitive analytical methods. When considering hormones, such as one of the estradiols, the most potent estrogen, forget parts per million or parts per billion. The concentrations are typically parts per trillion, one thousand times lower than parts per billion. One can begin to imagine a quantity so infinitesimally small by thinking of a gin and tonic made with a drop of gin in a train of tank cars full of tonic. That one drop in a train 6 miles long would be one part in a trillion.

The striking lifelong differences between a pretty sister and ugly sister stem from no more than a 35 parts-per-trillion difference in their exposure to estradiol and a one part-per-billion difference in testosterone. Using the gin and tonic analogy, the pretty sister's cocktail had 135 drops of gin in 1000 tank cars of tonic and the ugly sister's 100 drops-a difference that might not be detectable in a glass much less in a tank car flotilla.

This is a degree of sensitivity that approaches the unfathomable, a sensitivity, vom Saal says, "beyond people's wildest imaginations." If such exquisite sensitivity provides rich opportunities for varied offspring from the same genetic stock, this same characteristic also makes the system vulnerable to serious disruption if something interferes with normal hormone levels -a frightening possibility that first dawned on vom Saal when Theo Colborn called him to talk about synthetic chemicals that could act like hormones.

To appreciate vom Saal's concern, one must understand more about the intricate choreography of events before birth known as sexual differentiation and the key role played by hormones in this developmental ballet. In mice, elephants, whales, humans, and all other mammals as well as in birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, the process that creates two sexes from initially unisex embryos is guided by these chemical messengers. They are the conductors that give the cues at the right moment as tissues and organs make now or never choices about the direction of development. In this central drama in which boys become boys and girls become girls, hormones have the starring role.

Our understanding of what determines whether a fertilized egg becomes a male or female is very recent. Before the 20th century, it was widely assumed that the sex of the baby was determined by environmental factors such as temperature.

It was only in 1906 that two scientists -Nettie Marie Stevens and Edmund Beecher Wilson-independently noted that each cell in women had two X chromosomes while men always had an X and a Y, an observation that led to the theory that the number of X chromosomes determined sex. In the past decade, researchers have finally established that it is a gene on the Y chromosome rather than the number of X chromosomes that determine sex.

As most of us learned in high school biology, the eggs produced by the mother all carry one X chromosome, and that the sperm from the father carry either an X or a Y chromosome. The sex of the baby hangs in the balance as the sperm burst out of the starting gate and race against each other in the reproductive marathon. If this most primordial of athletic events were broadcast like the Boston Marathon, we might hear that three Ys are neck and neck at the entrance to the cervix, but an X is making a move on the outside in the push into the uterus. A field of 75 million sperm have been pushing hard-sweeping their tails back and forth in steady swimming motions, but in the biological equivalent of Heartbreak Hill, many are beginning to flag as they enter the fallopian tube leading from the top of the uterus. It's a tight race right to the finish line, but in the final seconds one racer thrusts ahead of the others. At the finish line of this race, an egg awaits the victor, rather than a crown of laurel, as it crashes through. If the Y-carrying sperm gets to the egg first, the baby, who has XY chromosomes, will be a boy. If the first sperm to the egg carries an X, the XX chromosome will produce a girl.

Such stories about the race between the Xs and the Ys for the egg left many of us with the impression that the outcome was all in the genetic instructions carried by the sperm. If the sperm delivered a Y, bingo, it was a boy-what unfolded between conception and birth was all more or less automatic and dictated by that genetic blueprint. In fact, the process is much more complex. The sex-determining gene in that Y chromosome has only a quick walk-on part in the elegant and wondrous process through which boys become boys.

 

 

 

 

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