Ectopic γ-catenin Expression Partially Mimics the Effects of Stabilized β-catenin on Embryonic Stem Cell Differentiation
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β-catenin, an adherens junction component and key Wnt pathway effector, regulates numerous developmental processes and supports embryonic stem cell (ESC) pluripotency in specific contexts. The β-catenin homologue γ-catenin (also known as Plakoglobin) is a constituent of desmosomes and adherens junctions and may participate in Wnt signaling in certain situations. Here, we use β-catenin((+/+)) and β-catenin((-/-)) mouse embryonic stem cells (mESCs) to investigate the role of γ-catenin in Wnt signaling and mESC differentiation. Although γ-catenin protein is markedly stabilized upon inhibition or ablation of GSK-3 in wild-type (WT) mESCs, efficient silencing of its expression in these cells does not affect β-catenin/TCF target gene activation after Wnt pathway stimulation. Nonetheless, knocking down γ-catenin expression in WT mESCs appears to promote their exit from pluripotency in short-term differentiation assays. In β-catenin((-/-)) mESCs, GSK-3 inhibition does not detectably alter cytosolic γ-catenin levels and does not activate TCF target genes. Intriguingly, β-catenin/TCF target genes are induced in β-catenin((-/-)) mESCs overexpressing stabilized γ-catenin and the ability of these genes to be activated upon GSK-3 inhibition is partially restored when wild-type γ-catenin is overexpressed in these cells. This suggests that a critical threshold level of total catenin expression must be attained before there is sufficient signaling-competent γ-catenin available to respond to GSK-3 inhibition and to regulate target genes as a consequence. WT mESCs stably overexpressing γ-catenin exhibit robust Wnt pathway activation and display a block in tri-lineage differentiation that largely mimics that observed upon overexpression of β-catenin. However, β-catenin overexpression appears to be more effective than γ-catenin overexpression in sustaining the retention of markers of naïve pluripotency in cells that have been subjected to differentiation-inducing conditions. Collectively, our study reveals a function for γ-catenin in the regulation of mESC differentiation and has implications for human cancers in which γ-catenin is mutated and/or aberrantly expressed.
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