Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Meeting Report

Steroid hormone receptors and dietary ligands: a selected review

Miriam N. Jacobs* c1 and David F. V. Lewisa1

a1 School of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, UK


Members of the nuclear steroid hormone superfamily mediate essential physiological functions. Steroid hormone receptors (SHR) act directly on DNA, regulate the synthesis of their target genes and are usually activated by ligand binding. Both endogenous and exogenous compounds and their metabolites may act as activators of SHR and disruptors of endocrine, cellular and lipid homeostasis. The endogenous ligands are generally steroids such as 17β-oestradiol, androgens, progesterone and pregnenolone. The exogenous compounds are usually delivered through the diet and include non-steroidal ligands. Examples of such ligands include isoflavanoids or phyto-oestrogens, and food contaminants such as exogenous oestrogens from hormone-treated cattle, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls and plasticisers. Certain drugs are also ligands; so nuclear receptors are also important drug targets for intervention in disease processes. The present review summarises recent reports on ligand-activated SHR that describe the selective regulation of a tightly-controlled cross-talking network involving exchange of ligands, and the control of major classes of cytochrome P450 (CYP) isoforms which metabolise many bioactive exogenous compounds. Many CYP have broad substrate activity and appear to be integrated into a coordinated metabolic pathway, such that whilst some receptors are ligand specific, other sensors may have a broader specificity and low ligand affinity to monitor aggregate levels of inducers. They can then trigger production of metabolising enzymes to defend against possible toxic nutrients and xenobiotic compounds. The influence of dietary intakes of nutrients and non-nutrients on the human oestrogen receptors (α and β), the aryl hydrocarbon receptor, the pregnane X receptor, the constitutive androstane receptor, and the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (α and γ), can be examined by utilising computer-generated molecular models of the ligand–receptor interaction, based on information generated from crystallographic data and sequence homology. In relation to experimental and observed data, molecular modelling can provide a scientifically sound perspective on the potential risk and benefits to human health from dietary exposure to hormone-mimicking chemicals, providing a useful tool in drug development and in a situation of considerable public concern.


c1 *Corresponding Author: Miriam Jacobs, fax +44 1483 300374, email