Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Genes and Development

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Pierre D. McCrea

Committee Member

Amy Sater

Committee Member

Lei Li

Committee Member

Warren S. Liao

Committee Member

Malgorzata Kloc


The Wnt pathways contribute to many processes in cancer and developmental biology, with β-catenin being a key canonical component. P120-catenin, which is structurally similar to β-catenin, regulates the expression of certain Wnt target genes, relieving repression conferred by the POZ/ zinc-finger transcription factor Kaiso. In my first project, employing Xenopus embryos and mammalian cell lines, I found that the degradation machinery of the canonical Wnt pathway modulates p120-catenin protein stability, especially p120 isoform-1, through mechanisms shared with b-catenin. Exogenous expression of destruction-complex components such as GSK3b or Axin promotes p120-catenin degradation, and consequently, is able to rescue developmental phenotypes resulting from p120 over-expression during early Xenopus embryonic development. Conversely, as predicted, the in vivo depletion of either Axin or GSK3b coordinately increased p120 and b-catenin levels, while p120 levels decreased upon LRP5/6 depletion, which are positive modulators in the canonical Wnt pathway. At the primary sequence level, I resolved conserved GSK3b phosphorylation sites in p120’s (isoform 1) amino-terminal region. Point-mutagenesis of these residues inhibited the association of destruction complex proteins including those involved in ubiquitination, resulting in p120-catenin stabilization. Importantly, we found that two additional p120-catenin family members, ARVCF-catenin and d-catenin, in common with b-catenin and p120, associate with Axin, and are degraded in Axin’s presence. Thus, by similar means, it appears that canonical Wnt signals coordinately modulate multiple catenin proteins having roles in development and conceivably disease states.

In my second project, I found that the Dyrk1A kinase exhibits a positive effect upon p120-catenin levels. That is, unlike the negative regulator GSK3b kinase, a candidate screen revealed that Dyrk1A kinase enhances p120-catenin protein levels via increased half-life. Dyrk1A is encoded by a gene located within the trisomy of chromosome 21, which contributes to mental retardation in Down Syndrome patients. I found that Dyrk1A expression results in increased p120 protein levels, and that Dyrk1A specifically associates with p120 as opposed to other p120-catenin family members or b-catenin. Consistently, Dyrk1A depletion in mammalian cell lines and Xenopus embryos decreased p120-catenin levels. I further confirmed that Dyrk overexpression and knock-down modulates both Siamois and Wnt11 gene expression in the expected manner based upon the resulting latered levels of p120-catenin. I determined that Dyrk expression rescues Kaiso depletion effects (gastrulation failure; increased endogenous Wnt11 expression), and vice versa. I then identified a putative Dyrk phosphorylation region within the N-terminus of p120-catenin, which may also be responsible for Dyrk1A association. I went on to make a phosphomimic mutant, which when over-expressed, had the predicted enhanced capacity to positively modulate endogenous Wnt11 and Siamois expression, and thereby generate gastrulation defects. Given that Dyrk1A modulates Siamois expression through stabilization of p120-catenin, I further observed that ectopic expression of Dyrk can positively influence b-catenin’s capacity to generate ectopic dorsal axes when ventrally expressed in early Xenopus embryos. Future work will investigate how Dyrk1A modulates the Wnt signaling pathway through p120-catenin, and possibly begin to address how dysfunction of Dyrk1A with respect to p120-catenin might relate to aspects of Down syndrome. In summary, the second phase of my graduate work appears to have revealed a novel aspect of Dyrk1A/p120-catenin action in embryonic development, with a functional linkage to canonical Wnt signaling. What I have identified as a “Dyrk1A/p120-catenin/Kaiso pathway” may conceivably assist in our larger understanding of the impact of Dyrk1A dosage imbalance in Down syndrome.


p120-catenin, Wnt, LRP, Axin, Dyrk, Hipk