Theranostics 2021; 11(10):4992-5009. doi:10.7150/thno.55006 This issue

Research Paper

Single-cell transcriptome dissection of the toxic impact of Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate on primordial follicle assembly

Jun-Jie Wang, Yu Tian, Ming-Hao Li, Yan-Qin Feng, Li Kong, Fa-Li Zhang, Wei Shen

College of Life Sciences, Key Laboratory of Animal Reproduction and Germplasm Enhancement in Universities of Shandong, Qingdao Agricultural University, Qingdao 266109, China

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Wang JJ, Tian Y, Li MH, Feng YQ, Kong L, Zhang FL, Shen W. Single-cell transcriptome dissection of the toxic impact of Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate on primordial follicle assembly. Theranostics 2021; 11(10):4992-5009. doi:10.7150/thno.55006. Available from

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Graphic abstract

Rationale: Accumulated evidence indicates that environmental plasticizers are a threat to human and animal fertility. Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), a plasticizer to which humans are exposed daily, can trigger reproductive toxicity by acting as an endocrine-disrupting chemical. In mammals, the female primordial follicle pool forms the lifetime available ovarian reserve, which does not undergo regeneration once it is established during the fetal and neonatal period. It is therefore critical to examine the toxicity of DEHP regarding the establishment of the ovarian reserve as it has not been well investigated.

Methods: The ovarian cells of postnatal pups, following maternal DEHP exposure, were prepared for single cell-RNA sequencing, and the effects of DEHP on primordial follicle formation were revealed using gene differential expression analysis and single-cell developmental trajectory. In addition, further biochemical experiments, including immunohistochemical staining, apoptosis detection, and Western blotting, were performed to verify the dataset results.

Results: Using single-cell RNA sequencing, we revealed the gene expression dynamics of female germ cells and granulosa cells following exposure to DEHP in mice. Regarding germ cells: DEHP impeded the progression of follicle assembly and interfered with their developmental status, while key genes such as Lhx8, Figla, and others, strongly evidenced the reduction. As for granulosa cells: DEHP likely inhibited their proliferative activity, and activated the regulation of cell death. Furthermore, the interaction between ovarian cells mediated by transforming growth factor-beta signaling, was disrupted by DEHP exposure, since the expression of GDF9, BMPR1A, and SMAD3 was affected. In addition, DNA damage and apoptosis were elevated in germ cells and/or somatic cells.

Conclusion: These findings offer substantial novel insights into the reproductive toxicity of DEHP exposure during murine germ cell cyst breakdown and primordial follicle formation. These results may enhance the understanding of DEHP exposure on reproductive health.

Keywords: DEHP, primordial follicle assembly, female germ cell, granulosa cell, single-cell transcriptome