Beta-catenin signaling has been shown to be involved in triggering axis formation in several organisms, including Xenopus and zebrafish. Genetic analysis has demonstrated that the Wnt/beta-catenin signaling pathway is also involved in axis formation in the mouse, since a targeted deletion of beta-catenin results in embryos that have a block in anterior-posterior axis formation, fail to initiate gastrulation, and do not form mesoderm. However, because beta-catenin is ubiquitously expressed, the precise time and cell types in which this signaling pathway is active during early embryonic development remain unknown. Thus, to better understand the role of the Wnt/beta-catenin signaling pathway in axis formation and mesoderm specification, we have examined both the distribution and signaling activity of beta-catenin during early embryonic development in the mouse. We show that the N-terminally nonphosphorylated form of beta-catenin as well as beta-catenin signaling is first detectable in the extraembryonic visceral endoderm in day 5.5 embryos. Before the initiation of gastrulation at day 6.0, beta-catenin signaling is asymmetrically distributed within the epiblast and is localized to a small group of cells adjacent to the embryonic--extraembryonic junction. At day 6.5 and onward, beta-catenin signaling was detected in the primitive streak and mature node. Thus, beta-catenin signaling precedes primitive streak formation and is present in epiblast cells that will go on to form the primitive streak. These results support a critical role for the Wnt/beta-catenin pathway in specifying cells to form the primitive streak and node in the mammalian embryo as well as identify a novel domain of Wnt/beta-catenin signaling activity during early embryogenesis.
2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.