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

Michelle C. Barton

Committee Member

Amy K. Sater

Committee Member

Lei Li

Committee Member

Warren S. Liao


Catenins have diverse and powerful roles in embryogenesis, homeostasis or disease progression, as best exemplified by the well-known beta-catenin. The less studied delta-catenin likewise contains a central Armadillo-domain. In common with other p120 sub-class members, it acts in a variety of intracellular compartments and modulates cadherin stability, small GTPase activities and gene transcription. In mammals, delta-catenin exhibits neural specific expression, with its knock-out in mice correspondingly producing cognitive defects and synaptic dysfunctions.

My work instead employed the amphibian, Xenopus laevis, to explore delta-catenin’s physiological functions in a distinct vertebrate system. Initial isolation and characterization indicated delta-catenin’s expression in Xenopus. Unlike the pattern observed for mammals, delta-catenin was detected in most adult Xenopus tissues, although enriched in embryonic structures of neural fate as visualized using RNA in-situ hybridization. To determine delta-catenin’s requirement in amphibian development, I employed anti-sense morpholinos to knock-down gene products, finding that delta-catenin depletion results in developmental defects in gastrulation, neural crest migration and kidney tubulogenesis, phenotypes that were specific based upon rescue experiments. In biochemical and cellular assays, delta-catenin knock-down reduced cadherin levels and cell adhesion, and impaired activation of RhoA and Rac1, small GTPases that regulate actin dynamics and morphogenetic movements. Indeed, exogenous C-cadherin, or dominant-negative RhoA or dominant-active Rac1, significantly rescued delta-catenin depletion. Thus, my results indicate delta-catenin’s essential roles in Xenopus development, with contributing functional links to cadherins and Rho family small G proteins.

In examining delta-catenin’s nuclear roles, I identified delta-catenin as an interacting partner and substrate of the caspase-3 protease, which plays critical roles in apoptotic as well as non-apoptotic processes. Delta-catenin’s interaction with and sensitivity to caspase-3 was confirmed using assays involving its cleavage in vitro, as well as within Xenopus apoptotic extracts or mammalian cell lines. The cleavage site, a highly conserved caspase consensus motif (DELD) within Armadillo-repeat 6 of delta-catenin, was identified through peptide sequencing. Cleavage thus generates an amino- (1-816) and carboxyl-terminal (817-1314) fragment each containing about half of the central Armadillo-domain. I found that cleavage of delta-catenin both abolishes its association with cadherins, and impairs its ability to modulate small GTPases. Interestingly, the carboxyl-terminal fragment (817-1314) possesses a conserved putative nuclear localization signal that I found is needed to facilitate delta-catenin’s nuclear targeting. To probe for novel nuclear roles of delta-catenin, I performed yeast two-hybrid screening of a mouse brain cDNA library, resolving and then validating its interaction with an uncharacterized KRAB family zinc finger protein I named ZIFCAT. My results indicate that ZIFCAT is nuclear, and suggest that it may associate with DNA as a transcriptional repressor. I further determined that other p120 sub-class catenins are similarly cleaved by caspase-3, and likewise bind ZIFCAT. These findings potentially reveal a simple yet novel signaling pathway based upon caspase-3 cleavage of p120 sub-family members, facilitating the coordinate modulation of cadherins, small GTPases and nuclear functions.

Together, my work suggested delta-catenin’s essential roles in Xenopus development, and has revealed its novel contributions to cell junctions (via cadherins), cytoskeleton (via small G proteins), and nucleus (via ZIFCAT). Future questions include the larger role and gene targets of delta-catenin in nucleus, and identification of upstream signaling events controlling delta-catenin’s activities in development or disease progression.


Catenin p120 Cadherin Adhesion Rho Rac Xenopus ZIFCAT Nucleus Transcription