WNT signaling pathways control a wide range of developmental and adult process in metozoans including cell proliferation, cell fate decisions, cell polarity and stem cell maintenance (reviewed in Saito-Diaz et al, 2013; MacDonald et al, 2009). The pathway is named for the WNT ligands, a large family of secreted cysteine-rich glycoproteins. At least 19 WNT members have been identified in humans and mice with distinct expression patterns during development (reviewed in Willert and Nusse, 2012). These ligands can activate at least three different downstream signaling cascades depending on which receptors they engage.
In the so-called 'canonical' WNT signaling pathway, WNT ligands bind one of the 10 human Frizzled (FZD) receptors in conjunction with the LRP5/6 co-receptors to activate a transcriptional cascade that controls processes such as cell fate, proliferation and self-renenwal of stem cells. Engagement of the FZD-LRP receptor by WNT ligand results in the stabilization and translocation of cytosolic beta-catenin to the nucleus where it is a co-activator for LEF (lymphoid enhancer-binding factor)- and TCF (T cell factor) -dependent transcription. In the absence of WNT ligand, cytosolic beta-catenin is phosphorylated by a degradation complex consisting of glycogen synthase kinase 3 (GSK3), casein kinase 1 (CK1), Axin and Adenomatous polyposis coli (APC), and subsequently ubiquitinated and degraded by the 26S proteasome (reviewed in Saito-Diaz et al, 2013; Kimmelman and Xu, 2006).
In addition to the beta-catenin-dependent transcriptional response, WNT signaling can also activate distinct non-transcriptional pathways that regulate cell migration and polarity. These beta-catenin-independent 'non-canonical' pathways signal through Frizzled receptors independently of LRP5/6, or occur through the tyrosine kinase receptors ROR and RYK (reviewed in Veeman et al, 2003; James et al, 2009). Non-canonical WNT pathways are best studied in Drosophila where the planar cell polarity (PCP) pathway controls the orientation of wing hairs and eye facets, but are also involved in processes such as convergent extension, neural tube closure, inner ear development and hair orientation in vertebrates and mammals(reviewed in Seifert and Mlodzik, 2007; Simons and Mlodzik, 2008). In the PCP pathway, binding of WNT ligand to the FZD receptor leads to activation of small Rho GTPases and JNK, which regulate the cytoskeleton and coordinate cell migration and polarity (reviewed in Lai et al, 2009; Schlessinger et al, 2009). In some cases, a FZD-WNT interaction increases intracellular calcium concentration and activates CaMK II and PKC; this WNT calcium pathway promotes cell migration and inhibits the canonical beta-catenin dependent transcriptional pathway (reviewed in Kuhl et al, 2000; Kohn and Moon, 2005; Rao et al 2010). Binding of WNT to ROR or RYK receptors also regulates cell migration, apparently through activation of JNK or SRC kinases, respectively, however the details of these pathways remain to be worked out (reviewed in Minami et al, 2010).
Although the WNT signaling pathways were originally viewed as discrete, linear pathways controlled by defined subsets of 'canonical' or 'non-canonical' ligands and receptors, the emerging evidence is challenging this notion. Instead, the specificity and the downstream response appear to depend on the particular cellular context and vary with species, tissue and stage of development (reviewed in van Amerongen and Nusse, 2009; Rao et al, 2010).