The developmental signals that govern cell specification and differentiation in vertebrate somites are well understood. However, little is known about the downstream signalling pathways involved. We have shown previously that a combination of Shh protein and Wnt1 or Wnt3a-expressing fibroblasts is sufficient to activate skeletal muscle-specific gene expression in somite explants. Here, we have examined the molecular mechanisms by which the Wnt-mediated signal acts on myogenic precursor cells. We show that chick frizzled 1 (Fz1), beta-catenin and Lef1 are expressed during somitogenesis. Lef1 and beta-catenin transcripts become restricted to the developing myotome. Furthermore, beta-catenin is expressed prior to the time at which MyoD transcripts can be detected. Expression of beta-catenin mRNA is regulated by positive and negative signals derived from neural tube, notochord and lateral plate mesoderm. These signals include Bmp4, Shh and Wnt1/Wnt3a itself. In somite explants, Fz1, beta-catenin and Lef1 are expressed prior to activation of myogenesis in response to Shh and Wnt signals. Thus, our data show that a combination of Shh and Wnt1 upregulates expression of Wnt pathway components in developing somites prior to myogenesis. Thus, Wnt1 could act through beta-catenin on cells in the myotome.

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