Research from a wide range of scientific disciplines has shown that the reproductive performance of animals in adult life is determined, in part, by a variety of extraneous influences acting at different stages of development from before conception until after birth. These effects are probably mediated through changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary and gonadal axes but the physiological system that is affected depends on the stage of development at which the influence is applied. The physiological mechanisms through which environmental influences are transmitted to the target organs are, in many cases, complex and poorly understood. Gonadotrophins seem to play a pivotal role in the development of the fetal testis, although effects of environmental influences on GnRH secretion have yet to be demonstrated. Other studies have shown that, at earlier stages of fetal development, the normal ontogeny of gonadal development and function can be disrupted by undernutrition or the influence of endocrine-disrupting compounds. Specifically, in female fetuses, the onset of meiosis is delayed, whereas, in male fetuses, testosterone synthesis is increased as a result of enhanced testicular steroidogenic enzyme activity. Although reproductive performance is clearly influenced by prenatal factors, much further work is required to identify the relationships between developmental abnormalities and adult reproductive function. Work is also required to elucidate further the critical windows in development and the mechanisms by which environmental factors affect the reproductive organs of developing offspring.
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