WT1 regulates epicardial epithelial to mesenchymal transition through β-catenin and retinoic acid signaling pathways

Alexander von Gise, Bin Zhou, Leah B. Honor, Qing Ma, Anna Petryk, William T. Pu

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188 Scopus citations


An epithelial sheet, the epicardium, lines the surface of the heart. In the developing embryo, the epicardium expresses the transcriptional regulator Wilm's Tumor Gene 1 (Wt1). Through incompletely understood mechanisms, Wt1 inactivation derails normal heart development. We investigated mechanisms by which Wt1 regulates heart development and epicardial epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT). We used genetic lineage tracing approaches to track and isolate epicardium and epicardium derivatives in hearts lacking Wt1 (Wt1KO). Wt1KO hearts had diminished proliferation of compact myocardium and impaired coronary plexus formation. Wt1KO epicardium failed to undergo EMT. Wt1KO epicardium expressed reduced Lef1 and Ctnnb1 (β-catenin), key components of the canonical Wnt/β-catenin signaling pathway. Wt1KO epicardium expressed decreased levels of canonical Wnt downstream targets Axin2, Cyclin D1, and Cyclin D2 and exhibited decreased activity of the Batgal Wnt/β-catenin reporter transgene, suggestive of diminished canonical Wnt signaling. Hearts with epicardium-restricted Ctnnb1 loss of function resembled Wt1KO hearts and also failed to undergo epicardial EMT. However, Ctnnb1 inactivation did not alter WT1 expression, positioning Wt1 upstream of canonical Wnt/β-catenin signaling. Wnt5a, a prototypic non-canonical Wnt with enriched epicardial expression, and Raldh2, a key regulator of retinoic acid signaling confined to the epicardium, were also markedly downregulated in Wt1KO epicardium. Hearts lacking Wnt5a or Raldh2 shared phenotypic features with Wt1KO. Although Wt1 has been proposed to regulate EMT by repressing E-cadherin, we detected no change in E-cadherin in Wt1KO epicardium. Collectively, our study shows that Wt1 regulates epicardial EMT and heart development through canonical Wnt, non-canonical Wnt, and retinoic acid signaling pathways.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)421-431
Number of pages11
JournalDevelopmental Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 15 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by funding from NIH R01 HL094683 and U01 HL100401 , by a fellowship grant from the American Heart Foundation (BZ), and by charitable support from Edward Marram and Karen Carpenter (WTP), Gail Federici Smith (WTP), the Tommy Kaplan Fund (AVG), and the Simeon Wolbach Fund (BZ).


  • Epicardium
  • Epithelial to mesenchymal transition
  • Mesothelium
  • Retinoic acid signaling
  • WT1
  • Wnt/β-catenin signaling


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