Women facing increased energetic demands in childhood commonly have altered adult ovarian activity and shorter reproductive lifespan, possibly comprising a strategy to optimize reproductive success. Here, we sought to understand the mechanisms of early-life programming of reproductive function, by integrating analysis of reproductive tissues in an appropriate mouse model with methylation analysis of proxy tissue DNA in a well-characterized population of Bangladeshi migrants in the UK. Bangladeshi women whose childhood was in Bangladesh were found to have later pubertal onset and lower age-matched ovarian reserve than Bangladeshi women who grew-up in England. Subsequently, we aimed to explore the potential relevance to the altered reproductive phenotype of one of the genes that emerged from the screens.
Of the genes associated with differential methylation in the Bangladeshi women whose childhood was in Bangladesh as compared to Bangladeshi women who grew up in the UK, 13 correlated with altered expression of the orthologous gene in the mouse model ovaries. These mice had delayed pubertal onset and a smaller ovarian reserve compared to controls. The most relevant of these genes for reproductive function appeared to be SRD5A1, which encodes the steroidogenic enzyme 5α reductase-1. SRD5A1 was more methylated at the same transcriptional enhancer in mice ovaries as in the women’s buccal DNA, and its expression was lower in the hypothalamus of the mice as well, suggesting a possible role in the central control of reproduction. The expression of Kiss1 and Gnrh was also lower in these mice compared to controls, and inhibition of 5α reductase-1 reduced Kiss1 and Gnrh mRNA levels and blocked GnRH release in GnRH neuronal cell cultures. Crucially, we show that inhibition of this enzyme in female mice in vivo delayed pubertal onset.
SRD5A1/5α reductase-1 responds epigenetically to the environment and its downregulation appears to alter the reproductive phenotype. These findings help to explain diversity in reproductive characteristics and how they are shaped by early-life environment and reveal novel pathways that might be targeted to mitigate health issues caused by life-history trade-offs.

© 2021. The Author(s).