A Wnt5a pathway underlies outgrowth of multiple structures in the vertebrate embryo.
Morphogenesis depends on the precise control of basic cellular processes such as cell proliferation and differentiation. Wnt5a may regulate these processes since it is expressed in a gradient at the caudal end of the growing embryo during gastrulation, and later in the distal-most aspect of several structures that extend from the body. A loss-of-function mutation of Wnt5a leads to an inability to extend the A-P axis due to a progressive reduction in the size of caudal structures. In the limbs, truncation of the proximal skeleton and absence of distal digits correlates with reduced proliferation of putative progenitor cells within the progress zone. However, expression of progress zone markers, and several genes implicated in distal outgrowth and patterning including Distalless, Hoxd and Fgf family members was not altered. Taken together with the outgrowth defects observed in the developing face, ears and genitals, our data indicates that Wnt5a regulates a pathway common to many structures whose development requires extension from the primary body axis. The reduced number of proliferating cells in both the progress zone and the primitive streak mesoderm suggests that one function of Wnt5a is to regulate the proliferation of progenitor cells.