The Wnts comprise a large class of secreted proteins that control essential developmental processes such as embryonic patterning, cell growth, migration, and differentiation. In the most well-understood “canonical” Wnt signaling pathway, Wnt binding to Frizzled receptors induces β-catenin protein stabilization and entry into the nucleus, where it complexes with T-cell factor/lymphoid enhancer factor transcription factors to affect the transcription of target genes. In addition to the canonical pathway, evidence for several other Wnt signaling pathways has accumulated, in particular for Wnt5a, which has therefore been classified as a noncanonical Wnt family member. To study the alternative mechanisms by which Wnt proteins signal, we purified the Wnt5a protein to homogeneity. We find that purified Wnt5a inhibits Wnt3a protein–induced canonical Wnt signaling in a dose-dependent manner, not by influencing β-catenin levels but by downregulating β-catenin–induced reporter gene expression. The Wnt5a signal is mediated by the orphan tyrosine kinase Ror2, is pertussis toxin insensitive, and does not influence cellular calcium levels. We show that in addition to its inhibitory function, Wnt5a can also activate β-catenin signaling in the presence of the appropriate Frizzled receptor, Frizzled 4. Thus, this study shows for the first time that a single Wnt ligand can initiate discrete signaling pathways through the activation of two distinct receptors. Based on these and additional observations, we propose a model wherein receptor context dictates Wnt signaling output. In this model, signaling by different Wnt family members is not intrinsically regulated by the Wnt proteins themselves but by receptor availability.
Understanding signaling by Wnt proteins has been hampered by a history of conflicting data. The authors reconcile previous findings concerning Wnt signaling by using purified Wnt5a to probe the signaling pathways it activates.