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In human, WNT gene clusters are highly conserved at specie level and associated with carcinogenesis. Among them, WNT-10A and WNT-6 genes clustered in chromosome 2q35 are homologous to WNT-10B and WNT-1 located in chromosome 12q13, respectively. In an attempt to study co-regulation, the coordinated expression of these genes was monitored in human breast cancer tissues. As compared to normal tissue, both WNT-10A and WNT-10B genes exhibited lower expression while WNT-6 and WNT-1 showed increased expression in breast cancer tissues. The co-expression pattern was elaborated by detailed phylogenetic and syntenic analyses. Moreover, the intergenic and intragenic regions for these gene clusters were analyzed for studying the transcriptional regulation. In this context, adequate conserved binding sites for SOX and TCF family of transcriptional factors were observed. We propose that SOX9 and TCF4 may compete for binding at the promoters of WNT family genes thus regulating the disease phenotype.
Breast cancer is one of the major causes of death in human. The incidence of breast cancer is increasing since 1960s with the reduction in survival rate . While most breast cancers arise sporadically, approximately 10% of all cases are associated with hereditary cancer . In recent years, several gene mutations have been identified to be responsible for familial breast cancers . Among them the oncogenic mutations leading to cancer mostly target the genes encoding receptors or downstream signaling components. Many reports suggest that dysfunction of WNT signaling pathway is one of the leading cause of cancer in humans . WNT was first identified as an oncogene in mouse mammary tumours in early 1980s postulating that WNT proteins or components of their signaling pathway could be the underlying cause of breast cancer in humans . WNT proteins belong to a large family of secreted proteins that act as extracellular signaling factors. These growth factors are highly conserved and influence many cellular functions such as differentiation, migration, proliferation, apoptosis, and stem cell renewal [6–8]. Altogether, there exist 19 WNT genes that encode highly similar proteins. The dynamic expression pattern of WNT genes may induce multiple signaling pathways depending upon the receptor involved, co-receptor expression and the intracellular signaling proteins [9–11]. However there lies a functional redundancy among the WNT family members.
Notably, WNT genes have rarely been found to be mutated in cancer; however, mutations routinely occur at their downstream targets . For example, 85% of colon cancer cases were due to the loss of function mutations in APC resulting in the elevated β-catenin levels . Similarly, loss of Axin-1 resulted in hepatocelluar carcinoma . In breast carcinoma cells, expression of β-catenin is less with poor prognosis rate. Moreover, β-catenin is not localized into the nucleus in breast cancer, indicating that WNT signaling may be uncommon in breast tumours. However, other studies reported a positive role of WNT signaling in breast cancer  and levels of WNTs or other components of WNT pathway are known to be altered in 50% of breast cancer cases. During the recent years, an increasing number of WNT genes have been implicated in the development of mammary gland. These include WNT-2, WNT-4, WNT-5A, WNT-5B, WNT-6, WNT-7B, WNT-10A and WNT-10B . In mouse, several WNT genes including WNT- 10A, WNT-10B and WNT-6 express within mammary line between E11.25 and E11.5 (40-42 somite stage) . More often, WNT genes regulate the developmental and morphological aspects of mammary gland, suggesting that malfunctioning of these genes may cause breast cancer. For example, WNT-2 that normally expresses in stromal compartment was found to be involved in breast carcinoma . Similarly, WNT-5A and WNT-7B over-expression in mammary tumourigenesis had also been reported . It is quite surprising that in human chromosomes, most of WNT genes are located in the form of clusters and are well conserved. For example, WNT-10A, WNT- 10B, WNT-3A and WNT-3 genes that are located in chromosomal regions 2q35, 12q13, 1q42 and 17q21 are homologous to WNT-6, WNT-1, WNT-9A and WNT-9B, respectively. These data reveal that ancestrally they were clustered together and duplicated or diverse later on during the course of evolution. In the current study, the expression pattern of two of these conserved clusters, WNT-1/-10B and WNT-6/- 10A was ascertained in human breast carcinoma tissues in parallel to their detailed phylogenetic and syntenic analyses. The combined in-silico data enlighten the facts that these genes are not only syntenic but also functionally co-regulate each other. Also, their intergenic regions were analysed for finding the binding sites of regulatory elements. The study was further broadened by increasing the number of species in phylogenetic analysis as well as in the syntenic and intergenic analysis. In order to learn the phylogeny of all 19 WNT paralogs, almost all species from every clad were included to examine the duplication and speciation events.
From the NCBI database, putative sequences of human WNT family members including WNT-1, WNT-2, WNT-2B, WNT-3, WNT-3A, WNT-4, WNT-5A, WNT-5B, WNT-6, WNT-7A, WNT- 7B, WNT-8A, WNT-8B, WNT-9A, WNT-9B, WNT-10A, WNT- 10B, WNT-11 and WNT-16 were retrieved. Genbank accession numbers of WNT-1, WNT-6, WNT-10A and WNT-10B mRNAs are [GenBank:X03072, GenBank:AF079522, GenBank:AB059569 and GenBank:X97057], respectively. Their choromosomal locations and detailed gene annotation studies were performed by using ENSEMBL genome browser. The Gene Ontology (GO) hierarchy annotations were downloaded from the Gene Ontology database.
By exploiting the knowledge of 19 paralogs of WNT gene family, we studied the evolutionary relationship among these paralogs. For each paralog, the closest putative orthologous sequence was collected using ENSEMBL BLASTP from various vertebrates representing Primates, Rodents, Mammals, and Fish. Orthologous sequences from tunicates (closest relative of vertebrate) and deuterostomes were also assembled to perform a more robust and thorough phylogenetic analysis. Species included in this study are Human (Homo sapien), Macaque (Macaca mullata), Mouse (Mus musculus), Rat (Rattus norvegicus), cattle (Bos Taurus), Zebra fish (Danio rerio), Puffer fish (Tetradon nigroviridis), Fruitfly (Drosophila melanogaster) and Nematode (Caenorhabditis elegans). Multiple sequence alignment (MSA) was performed by ClustalW with default settings and manually refined the alignment by removing the common gaps of the sequences. MEGA 5.0 was used to construct the trees by using distance based method, Neighbour joining Algorithm.
Freshly excised breast tumour tissues and adjacent normal breast tissue samples were obtained by surgical operation from 80 volunteers (30-50 years) at the affiliated hospital (Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, Islamabad). These tissues were frozen in liquid nitrogen as soon as mastectomy was performed.
Total RNA was extracted from normal as well as cancerous breast tissues by using the RNA mini kit according to the manufacturer's instructions (Invitrogen). Quantification of extracted RNA was performed by nanodrop (ND-1000) and readjusted by DEPC water. The integrity of RNA samples was tested by formaldehyde gel electrophoresis. Subsequently, cDNA synthesis was carried out from 1 µg of total RNA using the first strand cDNA systhesis system (Fermentas) and priming with random hexamer primers as per their standard protocol. Human β-actin primers 5'- AGCGAGCATCCCCCAAAGTT-3' (forward primer) and 5'- GGGCACGAAGGCTCATCATT-3' (reverse primer) were used as positive control. The sequences for the primers used are as follows: for WNT-1, 5'-GGTTTCTGCTACGCTGCTG-3' (forward primer) and 5'-TCTGTAAGCAGGTTCGTGGA-3' (reverse primer); for WNT-6, 5'- GGTTATGGACCCTACCAGCA-3' (forward primer) and 5'- GGAACTGGAACTGGCACTCT-3' (reverse primer); for WNT- 10A, 5'-GGGAGCCTCACAGAGACATC-3' (forward primer) and 5'-CCAGCACGTCTTGAGCTG-3' (reverse primer) and for WNT-10B, 5'-GGCTTGCTAGCTCTCTCGAT-3' (forward primer) and 5'-CTGGGTTCTGTCCCCTTGT-3' (reverse primer). Standard PCR reactions were performed by using 2µl of cDNA template and 1µl of each forward and reverse primer in a 25 µl reaction volume. Cycling conditions were 5 min at 95°C, 1 min at 59 - 61°C and 1 min at 72°C. After 35 cycles, the products were resolved by agarose gel electrophoresis and stained with ethidium bromide.
Sequence conservation analysis of the WNT-6/-10A and WNT- 1/-10B clusters were carried out carefully by visualizing the MSA in GeneDoc tool (K.B. Nicholas and H.B.J. Nicholas) and conserved regions were inspected for presence of domains or motifs. To detect the conserved domains within orthologs, PFAM, PRINTS, BLOCKS, PROSITE, PRODOM and InterproScan databases were used.
In order to study the intergenic regions for WNT-6/-10A and WNT-1/-10B clusters, their exon-intron structures were refined in detail. Both WNT-10A consist of four exons with three introns, WNT-10B has five exons while WNT-1 and WNT-6 comprise four exons and three introns, respectively. Transcriptional orientation of conserved clusters was analysed by using ENSEMBL genome browser. In order to validate the co-regulation of these clusters in various species, Co-express db and GO db were used. Almost 7KB upstream and downstream regulatory sequences of all four homologs WNT-1, WNT-6, WNT-10A and WNT-10B were extracted from ENSEMBL database and were analysed for the presence of transcriptional factor binding sites by using TrFAST (Transcription factor search and analysis tool) tool (unpublished data) to discover the new unified motifs in these intergenic regions. Furthermore, in order to find the methylation sites near the transcription factor binding sites, Methylator tool was used.
Our findings including orthologous sequences search, conservation pattern analysis in parallel to their genomic annotations studies, extracted newer details about WNT genes in corroboration with the previously documented data . In order to resolve the phylogenetic relationship among WNT family proteins, an un-rooted tree was constructed for the 19 WNTs by neighbour joining method (Figure 1). Some of the WNTs including WNT-7A/-7B, WNT-2/-2B, WNT-3/-3A, WNT-5A/-5B, WNT-9A/-9B and WNT-8A/-8B are observed in the form of clusters showing the ancestral duplication before vertebrate-invertebrate split. It seems from the tree that one of the homolog of these clusters was present in ancestral genome and subsequently diverged. However, the other copy has evolved either through simultaneous or by whole genome duplications. The most recent cluster found in the tree consists of WNT-7A/-7B, with Drosophila DW-2 making an out-group to it. Clearly, two copies of WNT-7B are distantly related to each other in Tetradon norvegicus while closely related in case of Danio rerio (zebra fish). WNT-3/-3A being most greatly conserved with WNT-7A/-7B lie next to it, followed by WNT-4 and another cluster of WNT-2/-2B and WNT-5A/-5B. A conserved cluster of WNT-8A/-8B is found aligned with above mentioned clusters. Going deeper into tree, a cluster including WNT-10A/-10B received a spectacular bootstrap support (100%) with WNT-1 and WNT-6 falling outside. Also, the two relevant branches of WNT-1 and WNT-6 contain a very significant bootstrap values (i.e. 100% and 93% respectively). Drosophila contains independent copies of both WNT-6 and WNT-10, showing the exact/true relationship to the given cluster. Notably, WNT-10B is independently duplicated in case of Tetradon norvegicus and WNT-16 is the closest relative of this gene cluster, obeying the true specie tree pattern. The last cluster under observation in the phylogenetic tree comprises WNT-11, WNT-9A and -9B, falls outside the whole tree (Figure 1).
The tree topology of WNT protein family is an extended form of (((AB) C) D) type topology. Phylogeny of vertebrate WNT proteins suggests that most of the duplication events occurred after vertebrate and invertebrate split and prior to fishtetrapoda divergence. However, this observation is not valid for all 19 WNT paralogs. The duplication events which gave rise to WNT-7A/-7B, WNT-1, WNT-6 and WNT-10A/-10B seem to be occurred prior to urochordate-vertebrate split (Figure 2), thus concluding that these three genes (WNT-1, WNT-6, WNT- 10)were conserved in ancestor and remained conserved till Homo sapien together with the orientation of these clusters. Altogether, we hypothesize that WNT-1, WNT-6, WNT-10A and WNT-10B have been originated due to ancestral duplication events and are involved in various basic developmental processes or signaling pathways.
tree clearly indicates the fact that there is an independent copy of WNT-1, WNT-10 and WNT-6 in Drosophila melanogaster, which depicts the ultra-conservation of this cluster in invertebrates along with its chromosomal orientation. Unrooted tree is constructed using MEGA 5.0 and one of distance based method (Neighbour Joining Algorithm). Bootstrap values are shown for individual branches to confirm the validity of clustering.
Both clusters WNT-10A/-6 and WNT-1/-10B lie at the same loci on human chromosomes 2q35 and 12q13, respectively. In order to explore the synteny of these four genes (WNT-1, WNT-6, WNT-10A, WNT-10B), ˜1MB locus of human chromosome 2 and 12 was studied and compared with macaque and mouse, which revealed that all the neighbouring genes were almost similar in organization and at sequence level. By performing MSA of WNT orthologs, several conserved elements had been isolated that were found to be necessary for multiple coregulatory functions. Higher syntenic conservation was achieved in case of WNT-6/-10A cluster as compared to WNT-1/- 10B in vertebrates that was consisted of about 105 MB syntenic region at chromosome 2q35, while the other cluster WNT-1/-10B exhibited approximately 17 MB region conservation with its ortholog (Figure 3A and B).
Interesting fact about these syntenic regions is that they also comprise similar pattern of organization for the neighbouring genes and their respective genetic paralogs including PRKAG3, DHH, IHH, DNAJB2, DNAJC2 and LMBR1. Surprisingly, the locations of these WNT clusters differ between lineages. For example, WNT-6 is located upstream of WNT-10A; while its homolog WNT-1 is located downstream to WNT-10B (Figure 4A, B). Similar is the case with PRKAG3 and its genetic paralog PRKAG1. IHH, paralog of DHH is exhibiting the similar organization but it lacks LMBR1 gene, which is present downstream to DHH (Figure 4C). Three genetic paralogs of TUBA gene (TUBA1A, TUBA1B and TUBA1C) are present at WNT-1 gene locus while absent in case of WNT-6 locus.
Protein sequences of WNT-1, WNT-6, WNT-10A and WNT-10B collected from Human (Homo sapien), Mouse (Mus musculus), Macaque (Macaca mullata) and Zebrafish (Danio rerio) were subsequently aligned. Based on the multiple sequence alignment (MSA), it is evident that there exists more than 80% conservation at sequence level among the selected species. Figure 5A, B and C represent the MSA of WNT-1 and WNT-6 proteins while Figure 6A, B and C represent the MSA of WNT- 10A and WNT-10B. These results reveal that WNT proteins exhibit distinctive distribution of conserved motifs and share similar pattern or number of conserved motifs. WNT family signature (C-[KR]-C-H-G-[LIVMT]-S-G-x-C) present in WNT ligands is involved in WNT receptor signaling pathway as well as in calcium modulating pathway and signal transduction activity . They also comprise palmitoylation site (ECKWQFRFRRWNC) which is required for accurate processing of WNTs . Somatostatin receptor Type-1 signature (SPGTRGRACNSSAPDLDGCD) is involved in Gprotein coupled receptor activity. HIV TAT domain signature (CLCRFHWCCVVQ) was also found conserved in WNT proteins, which is a signature for trans-activating response element of HIV and has proven to be a successful antiviral drug developmental target . A conserved motif of cysteine-knot family signature is found in all WNTs at specie level. Almost 22-23 conserved cysteines are present at the C-terminus of WNTs, which help in proper folding of WNTs due to formation of disulphide bridges. Secondly, these conserved cysteine motifs help WNT ligands to bind with Frizzled (FZD) receptors to initiate the WNT signaling cascade.
In WNT-10A/WNT-6 cluster, both genes co-regulate in Mus musculus. By genomic annotation of WNT-10A and WNT-6 in mice, we came to know that both genes play important role in G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) binding, signal transduction activity, pattern and axis formation, female gonad development, uteric bud morphogenesis, odontogenesis, nephron tube formation and in WNT receptor signaling pathway .The data is further supported by co-regulation values calculated by co-express database. Although the coregulation value is less than 0.5 but the Mutual Rank (MR) score, i.e. 9.9, strongly implicate their co-expression in WNT signaling pathway. In humans, WNT-10A and WNT-6 also regulate the same basic developmental processes like odontogenesis, cell response to stimuli and WNT receptor signaling pathway. Along with this WNT-10A is also involved in tongue, skin and hair development . Homologous cluster of WNT-1/WNT-10B is involved in regulation of WNT signaling pathway and Notch pathway and in several transcriptional regulatory activities. WNT-1 and WNT-10B are also involved in brain segmentation, mid brain-hind brain boundary development, axis specification and differentiation and growth of mesoderm and mammary glands. Moreover, they also exhibit GPCR and FZD binding activity. In humans, WNT-1 and WNT-10B are important developmental proteins being probable ligands for CNS development and in various regions of tissues .
Conventionally, several WNTs out of 19 manifest in human breast including WNT-1, -2, -4, -5A, -5B, -7A, -8B, -9A, -9B, -10B, and -11. However WNT-1 and WNT-4 exhibit an up-regulation in tumour . Being putative paralog of WNT-10A, presence of human NT-10B in both cancerous as well as in non-cancerous cell lines is obvious. It also shows differential expression in case of benign and malignant tumours . WNT-3A, WNT-4, WNT- 6, WNT-8B and WNT-9A play a positive role in breast cancer malignancy, while in several malignant tumours, the expression of WNT-5A, WNT-9B and WNT-16 are switched off . Some of the WNTs like WNT-3, WNT-4 and WNT-7B express in breast cancer cell lines. While WNT-2, WNT-3, WNT-4 and WNT-7B expression has also been monitored in breast cancer tissues (in case of mice, WNT-1 and WNT-3 are involved in tumorgenesis). Various WNT ligands, including, WNT-3A, WNT-4, WNT-6, WNT-8B, WNT-9A and WNT-10B ectopically up-regulate in human mammary epithelial cells (HMEC). However, WNT-5A and WNT-5B exhibit totally opposite pattern of signaling .
Expression investigation of WNT-1, WNT-6, WNT-10A and WNT-10B were performed for invasive ductal carcinoma of breast (mammary glands) in human in order to confirm their co-regulation. RNA was extracted from each control and diseased sample and then preceded to cDNA synthesis and PCR amplification. Our results confirmed that all these WNTs express in human breast. WNT-1 and WNT-6 were found to be up-regulated in tumour samples while WNT-10A and WNT-10B up-regulated in normal tissue (Figure 7A and Figure 7B).
WNT signaling pathway alters the expression of target genes in an instructive fashion and hence determines the cell fate. Normally, the genes regulated directly or indirectly by WNTs are quite often regulatory growth factors, which play a key role in controlling development . Some of the best-studied examples include members of the HMG-box proteins binding to the specific sites at the target gene promoter region.We examined the conserved intergenic region of about 7 KB between WNT-6 and WNT-10A (Figure 8A) and have speculated that TCF-4 and SOX-9 are the responsible regulatory elements, that may act as activator and inhibitors respectively, hence interceding the signaling pathway. The regulatory region used for analysis was further extended from 7 KB downstream of WNT-6 (Figure 8B) to 7 KB upstream of WNT-10A (Figure 8C). The putative transcription factor binding sites (TFBSs) were found by using TrFAST tool created in our lab (unpublished data). The criterion used to select a TFBS was based on two key points. Firstly, the presence of consensus transcription factor sequence at regulator region and secondly, similar conservation pattern in all orthologous species. The common transcriptional regulatory network model that we obtained from in-silico study may regulate WNT signaling in various cellular contexts. 5' upstream region of WNT-10A contains the binding sites for myc family (n-myc and c-myc) of transcription factors, TCF-4 and SOX family (SOX-2). Similarly, 5' flanking region of WNT-6 also contain these TFBS, however, their number almost doubled than that of WNT-10A. Association of SOX-2 with cyclinD1 promoter, containing TCFbinding sites raise the β-catenin aroused cyclinD1 transcription .
Furthermore, in-silico analysis revealed that all these conserved non-coding elements (CNEs) are present in Homo sapien, Macaca mulata, Mus musculus and Danio rerio (the species under observation for intergenic analysis), irrespective of the exact orientation on genome. The second homologous WNT cluster of WNT-1 and WNT-10B (Figure 9A, B, and Figure 9C) exhibits more or less the similar pattern of gene expression due to the plethora of TFBSs located at their upstream and downstream regulatory regions. The binding sites downstream of WNT-10B are same as upstream of WNT-1, and there are also various sites of TCF-4, SOX-2 and myc family present downstream of WNT-10B , due to which it might shows mild expression in tumour breast samples relative to WNT-1, which is found to be down regulated. Other studies, however led us to the conclusion that both TCF-4 and SOX-2 can be transactivators in some specific promoter context, thus raising the β-catenin dependent transcription in human breast carcinoma. Similarly, SOX-9 binding sites were localized at the downstream region of WNT- 10A. Recent studies suggest that SOX-9 antagonizes the WNT signaling either by promoting the β-catenin degradation or by inhibiting β-catenin transcriptional activity . Increased cytoplasmic expression of SOX-9 has been reported to associate with higher grade human breast tumours . These findings support our data that SOX-9 could be a mediator for the inhibition of WNT-10A expression in invasive breast cancer.
Regulation of ancestrally duplicated WNT cluster in breast cancer in comparison to the surrounding tissue is not surprising by considering the structural similarity of TCF and SOX factors, their affinity for binding with DNA sequences and in chromatin remodelling. Genetic studies have shown that SOX-9 inhibits the association between TCF and β-catenin by competing the binding for β-catenin . Similarly, for some target promoters, both SOX and TCF may compete for DNA binding or repress the transcription by direct interaction. Although, it is unknown how SOX represses the WNT signaling, it is likely that either SOX factors inhibit TCF-4 and DNA binding or appear to block the binding of TCF-4 and β-catenin.
The findings reported herein suggest that there exists a coordinated expression pattern of WNT-1/-10B and WNT-6/-10A clusters in human breast cancer. Expression studies revealed an up-regulation of WNT-1 and WNT-6 in tumour tissues. However, to our surprise, the expressions of their corresponding homologues WNT-10B and WNT-10A were decreased in the same tissues. These findings led us to study the functional synergy of this co-expression. The existence of conserved binding sites for the TCF-4 and SOX family of TFs at the flanking regions of WNT-10A/WNT-6 and WNT-1/WNT-10B indicated a co-operative regulation of transcriptional activity. Existence of 20 SOX proteins and almost same number of WNT molecules in vertebrates working in a co-operative manner require more attention to delineate the cell-specific transcriptional events and their contribution in the tumourigenesis.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
QA, Figure 1A, 1B, 1C, Figure 2A, 2B, 2C, Figure 3, Figure 4, Figure 5A, 5B, Figure 6a, 6B, 6C, Figure 7A,7B experimental design, Phylogenetic and syntenic analysis and results compilation; US, Figure 8A, 8B, 8C, Figure 9A, 9B, 9C, Transcription factor binding site prediction and analysis using TrFAST tool; SN, Manuscript writing and editing; SR, research design, manuscript preparation, editing and analysis. All authors read and approve the final manuscript.
We are thankful to Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, Islamabad, Pakistan for providing human breast cancer samples used in this study. We also thank Nousheen and Zahida for providing expert technical assistance and for critical reading of the manuscript. This study was supported by HEC, Pakistan.
Citation:Ain et al, Bioinformation 7(7): 339-346 (2011)