An integral program for tissue renewal and regeneration: Wnt signaling and stem cell control

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Science  03 Oct 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6205, 1248012
DOI: 10.1126/science.1248012

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Structured Abstract


In adult mammalian organisms, multiple tissues—including the skin, blood, stomach, and intestines—are entrapped in a state of permanent regeneration; older cells are constantly shed, and the tissue is continuously being regenerated from resident stem cells. This phenomenon of “tissue renewal” was appreciated by Leblond in 1956, but the underlying mechanism has been unclear. It is now evident that a class of extracellular developmental signaling proteins, known as Wnt signals, animate the continued renewal of several mammalian tissues by fuelling stem cell activity. If the Wnt pathway is inhibited, tissue renewal is crippled. This signaling pathway is an ancient evolutionary program dating from when Wnt signals arose in the simplest multicellular organisms, in which Wnts acted as primordial symmetry-breaking signals crucial for the generation of patterned tissues during embryogenesis. In vertebrates, these signals also function in pattern maintenance: They sustain tissue renewal, enabling tissues to be continuously replenished and maintained over a lifetime.

Embedded Image

Multiple adult organs are in a state of continual regeneration. In tissues such as the skin, intestines, brain, and mammary glands, Wnt signaling proteins sustain this constant regeneration by inducing stem cells (green cells in the illustration) to grow. This leads to the robust supply of new cells (green) in order to replenish and maintain the tissue. [Image credits are available in the full article online.]


In contrast to traditional “long-range” developmental signals, Wnts seem to act as short-range intercellular signals—acting mostly between adjacent cells. Lending credence to this notion, a membrane-tethered Wnt protein variant can fulfill most functions of a normal Wnt protein in Drosophila. Likely explaining the short-range nature of these signals, Wnt proteins are attached to a lipid and therefore are hydrophobic; they cannot freely traverse the extracellular space by themselves. This provides insight into how tissue renewal is regulated. It implies that Wnt signals emanating from the stem cell microenvironment (the “niche”) may influence adjacent stem cells without affecting a broad field of cells located farther away. The concept of an external niche, however, may have to be refined because it is clear that stem cells can sometimes act as their own niche and have unexpected developmental self-organizing capacities. Last, the widespread importance of Wnt signaling in driving tissue renewal has been revealed by the identification of Axin2 and Lgr5, genes expressed in cells that are responding to Wnt signals. Genetically labeling Axin2+ or Lgr5+ cells in a variety of tissues has revealed that such cells fuel tissue renewal in the intestines, mammary gland, skin, and brain, among other organs.


The amazing continuous self-regeneration of various mammalian tissues over years and decades continues to be an enigmatic terra incognita in biology. For instance, visualization of stem cells in real-time in vivo (through intravital microscopy) has shown that when some stem cells are ablated, they are replaced by more differentiated cells that are recalled to the stem cell niche, whereupon they regain stem cell identity to effect tissue repair. Therefore, lineage barriers between stem cell and differentiated fates are not always stringent and can be traversed during times of tissue damage. Reactivated Wnt signals may be instrumental in this process, and perhaps such signals could be exploited in order to enkindle tissue regeneration after injury or disease. From a pragmatic perspective, Wnt signals have already found practical use in manipulating stem cells, enabling propagation of stem cells in vitro as self-renewing cell populations and as organoids.

Controlling stem cells and their niches

Adult organs such as the intestines and skin continually renew themselves every few days or weeks. In several mammalian tissues, this renewal relies on Wnt signaling. Clevers et al. review this crucial role in stem cell self renewal. Wnt plays a pivotal role in tissue regeneration even in the earliest animals. Wnt proteins function mainly as short-range signals between adjacent cells. The short-range, spatially-constrained nature of Wnt signals underpins mammalian stem cell niche architecture and tissue self-organization.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.1248012


Stem cells fuel tissue development, renewal, and regeneration, and these activities are controlled by the local stem cell microenvironment, the “niche.” Wnt signals emanating from the niche can act as self-renewal factors for stem cells in multiple mammalian tissues. Wnt proteins are lipid-modified, which constrains them to act as short-range cellular signals. The locality of Wnt signaling dictates that stem cells exiting the Wnt signaling domain differentiate, spatially delimiting the niche in certain tissues. In some instances, stem cells may act as or generate their own niche, enabling the self-organization of patterned tissues. In this Review, we discuss the various ways by which Wnt operates in stem cell control and, in doing so, identify an integral program for tissue renewal and regeneration.

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