Formation of mesoderm from the pluripotent epiblast depends upon canonical Wnt/β-catenin signaling, although a precise molecular basis for this requirement has not been established. To develop a robust model of this developmental transition, we examined the role of Wnt signaling during the analogous stage of embryonic stem cell differentiation. We show that the kinetics of Wnt ligand expression and pathway activity in vitro mirror those found in vivo. Furthermore, inhibition of this endogenous Wnt signaling abrogates the functional competence of differentiating ES cells, reflected by their failure to generate Flk1+ mesodermal precursors and subsequent mature mesodermal lineages. Microarray analysis at various times during early differentiation reveal that mesoderm- and endoderm-associated genes fail to be induced in the absence of Wnt signaling, indicating a lack of germ layer induction that normally occurs during gastrulation in vivo. The earliest genes displaying Wnt-dependent expression, however, were those expressed in vivo in the primitive streak. Using an inducible form of stabilized β-catenin, we find that Wnt activity, although required, does not autonomously promote primitive streak-associated gene expression in vitro. Our results suggest that Wnt signaling functions in this model system to regulate the thresholds or stability of responses to other effector pathways and demonstrate that differentiating ES cells represent a useful model system for defining complex regulatory interactions underlying primary germ layer induction.
- ES cell