Background: Secreted signaling proteins of the Wingless (Wg)/Wnt, Hedgehog and bone morphogenetic protein (BMP)/Decapentaplegic (Dpp) families function as morphogens to control growth and pattern formation during development. Although these proteins have been shown to act directly on distant cells in the developing limbs of the fruit fly Drosophila, little is known about how ligand gradients form in vivo. Wg protein is found in vesicles in Wg-responsive cells in the embryo and imaginal discs. It has been proposed that Wg may be transported by a vesicle-mediated mechanism.
Results: A novel method to visualize extracellular Wg protein was used to show that Wg forms an unstable gradient on the basolateral surface of the wing imaginal disc epithelium. Wg movement did not require internalization by dynamin-mediated endocytosis. Dynamin activity was, however, required for Wg secretion. By reversibly blocking Wg secretion, we found that Wg moves rapidly to form a long-range extracellular gradient.
Conclusions: The Wg morphogen gradient forms by rapid movement of ligand through the extracellular space, and depends on continuous secretion and rapid turnover. Endocytosis is not required for Wg movement, but contributes to shaping the gradient by removing extracellular Wg. We propose that the extracellular Wg gradient forms by diffusion.