Nicole A. Campbell, Rachel Angles, Rachel M. Bowden, Joseph M. Casto, and Ryan T. Paitz
Maternal transfer of steroids to eggs can elicit permanent effects on offspring phenotype. Although testosterone was thought to be a key mediator of maternal effects in birds, we now know that vertebrate embryos actively regulate their exposure to maternal testosterone through steroid metabolism, suggesting testosterone metabolites, not testosterone, may elicit the observed phenotypic effects. To address the role steroid metabolism plays in mediating yolk testosterone effects, we used European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) eggs to characterize the timing of testosterone metabolism and determine whether etiocholanolone, a prominent metabolite of testosterone in avian embryos, is capable of affecting early embryonic development. Tritiated testosterone was injected into freshly laid eggs to characterize steroid movement and metabolism during early development. Varying levels of etiocholanolone were also injected into eggs and incubated for either three or five days to test whether etiocholanolone influences the early growth of embryonic tissues. The conversion of testosterone to etiocholanolone is initiated within 12 hours of injection, but the increase in etiocholanolone is transient indicating that etiocholanolone is also subject to metabolism, and that exposure to maternal etiocholanolone is limited to a short period during early development. Exogenous etiocholanolone manipulation had no significant effect on the growth rate of the embryos or extra-embryonic membranes early in development. Thus, the conversion of testosterone to etiocholanolone may be an inactivation pathway that buffers the embryo from maternal steroids, with any effects of yolk testosterone resulting from testosterone that escapes metabolism; alternatively, etiocholanolone may influence processes other than growth or take additional time to manifest.