Role of glycogen synthase kinase-3 in cell fate and epithelial-mesenchymal transitions

Cells Tissues Organs. 2007;185(1-3):73-84. doi: 10.1159/000101306.


Epithelial cells usually exist as sheets of immotile, tightly packed, well-coupled, polarized cells with distinct apical, basal and lateral surfaces. Remarkably, these cells can dramatically alter their morphology to become motile, fibroblast-like mesenchymal cells in a process of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). This process and the reverse, mesenchymal-epithelial transition, occur repeatedly during normal embryonic development. A phenomenon similar to physiological EMT occurs during the pathophysiological progression of some cancers. Tumours of epithelial origin, as they transform to malignancy, appear to exploit the innate plasticity of epithelial cells, with EMT conferring increased invasiveness and metastatic potential. Key to the maintenance of epithelial cell identity is the expression of E-cadherin, a protein that is required for tight intercellular adhesion along the lateral surfaces of adjacent epithelial cells. Loss of functional E-cadherin is a critical event in EMT. An important regulator of E-cadherin expression is the protein Snail, a zinc-finger transcriptional repressor. Snail contains several consensus sites for the kinase, glycogen synthase kinase-3 (GSK-3), and accumulating evidence indicates that it is a GSK-3 substrate. Phosphorylation of Snail by GSK-3 facilitates its proteasomal degradation. Conversely, inhibition of GSK-3 leads to Snail accumulation, E-cadherin downregulation, and development of EMT in cultured epithelial cells. Several signalling pathways implicated in the progression of EMT, including the Wnt and phosphoinositide 3-kinase pathways, use GSK-3 to mediate their responses. In these pathways, GSK-3's regulation of other transcriptional effectors like beta-catenin works in concert with changes in Snail to orchestrate the EMT process. This review focuses on the emerging role of GSK-3 as a modulator of cell fate and EMT in the contexts of development, in vitro cell culture and cancer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cadherins / genetics
  • Cadherins / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Epithelium / metabolism*
  • Glycogen Synthase Kinase 3 / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Mesoderm / cytology
  • Mesoderm / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Snail Family Transcription Factors
  • Transcription Factors / genetics
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Wnt Proteins / metabolism


  • Cadherins
  • Snail Family Transcription Factors
  • Transcription Factors
  • Wnt Proteins
  • Glycogen Synthase Kinase 3