Sex Steroids: Beyond Conventional Dimorphism
Sexual dimorphism is a characteristic of a large number of species, ranging from lower invertebrates to mammals and, last but not least, humans. Recognition of the various factors regulating sexual dimorphism initial establishment (i.e. sex determination and differentiation) and subsequent life-long adaptation to distinct functional and behavioural patterns has remained a hot topic for several decades. As our understanding of the various molecular pathways involved in this process increases, the significant role of sex steroids becomes more evident. At the same time, the recognition of new sites of steroid production (e.g. parts of the brain) and aromatization, as well as new target cells (owing to the proposed presence of additional receptors to those classically considered as primary steroid receptors) has lead to the need to revisit their spectrum of actions within a novel, multifactorial context. Thus, anthropology and medicine are presented with the challenge to unravel a major mystery, i.e. that of sexual orientation and differentiation and its potential contribution in human evolution and civilization development, taking advantage of the high-tech research tools provided by modern biotechnology. This short review summarizes the basic principles of sex determination and sex steroid function as they have been classically described in the literature and then proceeds to present examples of how modern research methods have started to offer a new insight on the more subtle details of this process, stressing that it is extending to virtually every single part and system of the body.
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