The extracellular distribution of secreted Wnt proteins is crucial for their ability to induce a response in target cells at short and long ranges to ensure proper development. Wnt proteins are evolutionarily conserved ligands that are lipid-modified, and their hydrophobic nature interferes with their solubility in the hydrophilic extracellular environment. This raises the question of how Wnt proteins spread extracellularly despite their lipid modifications, which are essential for both their secretion and function. Seminal studies on Drosophila Wingless (Wg), a prototypical Wnt, have discovered multiple mechanisms by which Wnt proteins spread. A central theme emerges from these studies: the Wnt lipid moiety is shielded from the aqueous environment, allowing the ligands to spread and remain viable for signaling. Wnt distribution in vivo is primarily facilitated by glypicans, which are cell-surface heparan sulfate proteoglycans, and recent studies have further provided mechanistic insight into how glypicans facilitate Wnt distribution. In this Review, we discuss the many diverse mechanisms of Wnt distribution, with a particular focus on glypican-mediated mechanisms.
Keywords: Extracellular Wg; Extracellular Wnt; Glypicans; Long-range signaling; Short-range signaling; Wnt hydrophobicity.
© 2022. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.