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Hui Li Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA

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Daniel J Spade Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA

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Fetal development of the mammalian testis relies on a series of interrelated cellular processes: commitment of somatic progenitor cells to Sertoli and Leydig cell fate, migration of endothelial cells and Sertoli cells, differentiation of germ cells, deposition of the basement membrane, and establishment of cell–cell contacts, including Sertoli–Sertoli and Sertoli–germ cell contacts. These processes are orchestrated by intracellular, endocrine, and paracrine signaling processes. Because of this complexity, testis development can be disrupted by a variety of environmental toxicants. The toxicity of phthalic acid esters (phthalates) on the fetal testis has been the subject of extensive research for two decades, and phthalates have become an archetypal fetal testis toxicant. Phthalates disrupt the seminiferous cord formation and maturation, Sertoli cell function, biosynthesis of testosterone in Leydig cells, and impair germ cell survival and development, producing characteristic multinucleated germ cells. However, the mechanisms responsible for these effects are not fully understood. This review describes current knowledge of the adverse effects of phthalates on the fetal testis and their associated windows of sensitivity, and compares and contrasts the mechanisms by which toxicants of current interest, bisphenol A and its replacements, analgesics, and perfluorinated alkyl substances, alter testicular developmental processes. Working toward a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms responsible for phthalate toxicity will be critical for understanding the long-term impacts of environmental chemicals and pharmaceuticals on human reproductive health.

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