The entry of beta-catenin into vegetal cell nuclei beginning at the 16-cell stage is one of the earliest known molecular asymmetries seen along the animal-vegetal axis in the sea urchin embryo. Nuclear beta-catenin activates a vegetal signaling cascade that mediates micromere specification and specification of the endomesoderm in the remaining cells of the vegetal half of the embryo. Only a few potential target genes of nuclear beta-catenin have been functionally analyzed in the sea urchin embryo. Here, we show that SpWnt8, a Wnt8 homolog from Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, is zygotically activated specifically in 16-cell-stage micromeres in a nuclear beta-catenin-dependent manner, and its expression remains restricted to the micromeres until the 60-cell stage. At the late 60-cell stage nuclear beta-catenin-dependent SpWnt8 expression expands to the veg2 cell tier. SpWnt8 is the only signaling molecule thus far identified with expression localized to the 16-60-cell stage micromeres and the veg2 tier. Overexpression of SpWnt8 by mRNA microinjection produced embryos with multiple invagination sites and showed that, consistent with its localization, SpWnt8 is a strong inducer of endoderm. Blocking SpWnt8 function using SpWnt8 morpholino antisense oligonucleotides produced embryos that formed micromeres that could transmit the early endomesoderm-inducing signal, but these cells failed to differentiate as primary mesenchyme cells. SpWnt8-morpholino embryos also did not form endoderm, or secondary mesenchyme-derived pigment and muscle cells, indicating a role for SpWnt8 in gastrulation and in the differentiation of endomesodermal lineages. These results establish SpWnt8 as a critical component of the endomesoderm regulatory network in the sea urchin embryo.
Copyright 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.