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The Wnt signaling pathways are a group of signal transduction pathways made of proteins that pass signals from outside of a cell through cell surface receptors to the inside of the cell. Three Wnt signaling pathways have been characterized: the canonical Wnt pathway, the noncanonical planar cell polarity pathway, and the noncanonical Wnt/calcium pathway. All three Wnt signaling pathways are activated by the binding of a Wnt-protein ligand to a Frizzledfamily receptor, which passes the biological signal to the protein Dishevelled inside the cell. The canonical Wnt pathway leads to regulation of gene transcription, the noncanonical planar cell polarity pathway regulates thecytoskeleton that is responsible for the shape of the cell, and the noncanonical Wnt/calcium pathway regulates calcium inside the cell. Wnt signaling pathways use either nearby cell-cell communication (paracrine) or same-cell communication (autocrine). They are highly evolutionarily conserved, meaning they are similar across many species from fruit flies to humans.
Wnt signaling was first identified for its role in carcinogenesis, but has since been recognized for its function in embryonic development. The embryonic processes it controls include body axis patterning, cell fate specification, cell proliferation, and cell migration. These processes are necessary for proper formation of important tissues including bone, heart, and muscle. Its role in embryonic development was discovered when genetic mutations in proteins in the Wnt pathway produced abnormal fruit fly embryos. Later research found that the genes responsible for these abnormalities also influenced breast cancer development in mice.
The clinical importance of this pathway has been demonstrated by mutations that lead to a variety of diseases, including breast and prostate cancer, glioblastoma, type II diabetes, and others.