The serine/threonine kinase Xgsk-3 and the intracellular protein beta-catenin are necessary for the establishment of the dorsal-ventral axis in Xenopus. Although genetic evidence from Drosophila indicates that Xgsk-3 is upstream of beta-catenin, direct interactions between these proteins have not been demonstrated. We demonstrate that phosphorylation of beta-catenin in vivo requires an in vitro amino-terminal Xgsk-3 phosphorylation site, which is conserved in the Drosophila protein armadillo. beta-catenin mutants lacking this site are more active in inducing an ectopic axis in Xenopus embryos and are more stable than wild-type beta-catenin in the presence of Xgsk-3 activity, supporting the hypothesis that Xgsk-3 is a negative regulator of beta-catenin that acts through the amino-terminal site. Inhibition of endogenous Xgsk-3 function with a dominant-negative mutant leads to an increase in the steady-state levels of ectopic beta-catenin, indicating that Xgsk-3 functions to destabilize beta-catenin and thus decrease the amount of beta-catenin available for signaling. The levels of endogenous beta-catenin in the nucleus increases in the presence of the dominant-negative Xgsk-3 mutant, suggesting that a role of Xgsk-3 is to regulate the steady-state levels of beta-catenin within specific subcellular compartments. These studies provide a basis for understanding the interaction between Xgsk-3 and beta-catenin in the establishment of the dorsal-ventral axis in early Xenopus embryos.
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