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Sex-Changing Weed Killer: Widely Used Herbicide ‘Atrazine’ Disrupts Frogs’ Sexual Development

By David Biello, Scientific American, 5/1/2010

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The bountiful fields of the U.S. are awash in atrazine. About 36 million kilograms of the odorless, white powder are applied on farms to control grassy weeds. Every year some 225,000 kilograms of the herbicide become airborne and fall with the rain, up to 1,000 kilometers from the source. All that atrazine may have a sexual effect: turning male frogs female.

As described in the March 1 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, biologist Tyrone Hayes of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues exposed 40 African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) to 2.5 parts per billion (ppb) of atrazine continuously for three years—a level below the 3 ppb allowed in drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, 30 of the frogs were chemically castrated, incapable of reproducing, among other consequences. Also, four of the treated frogs actually turned female, going so far as to mate with other males and produce viable eggs despite being genetically male. Only six of the treated frogs resisted atrazine or at least showed normal sexual behavior.

To be sure of their results, the researchers used males bearing only the ZZ sex chromosomes. In previous studies “if we got hermaphrodites, there was no way to know if they were males with ovaries or females with testes,” Hayes says. “By using all ZZ males, we were assured that any hermaphrodites or females were indeed sex-reversed males.” Frogs follow the ZZ (male), ZW (female) sex determination scheme, rather than the more familiar XX (female), XY (male) pattern of humans.

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