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Genetics Home Reference: your guide to understanding genetic conditions     A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine®

WNT gene family

Reviewed February 2008

What are the WNT genes?

Researchers have identified 19 genes in the WNT gene family. These genes provide instructions for making similar proteins that participate in chemical signaling pathways in the body. Some WNT proteins are specific to certain cells and tissues.

WNT proteins are ligands, which means they can attach (bind) to other proteins called receptors. A ligand and its receptor fit together like a key in a lock. WNT proteins bind with receptors called Frizzled proteins on the surface of cells. This binding triggers a multi-step process within the cell that allows a molecule called beta-catenin to move into the nucleus, where it activates certain genes. The association of WNT proteins with Frizzled receptors, and the subsequent effects on beta-catenin, are known as the canonical WNT signaling pathway. This pathway promotes the growth and division (proliferation) of cells and helps determine the specialized functions a cell will have (differentiation).

WNT signaling is known to be involved in many aspects of embryonic development. The WNT signaling pathway controls the activity of genes needed at specific times during development, and it regulates the interactions between cells as organs and tissues are forming. Mutations that disrupt the functions of WNT genes during embryonic development have been found to cause birth defects. In adult tissues, WNT signaling plays a role in the maintenance and renewal of stem cells, which are cells that help repair tissue damage and can give rise to other types of cells. Studies suggest that abnormal WNT signaling is associated with many human diseases, including cancer and degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis.

Although most studies have focused on the canonical WNT signaling pathway, WNT proteins also have other functions. For example, noncanonical WNT signaling is involved in determining the position of various components within cells (cell polarity), regulating the migration of nerve cells, and directing the development of the heart during the earliest stages of embryonic development. Noncanonical WNT signaling is not well understood, however.

Which genes are included in the WNT gene family?

The HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee (HGNC) provides an index of gene families ( and their member genes.

Genetics Home Reference summarizes the normal function and health implications of these members of the WNT gene family: WNT3, WNT4, and WNT5A.

What conditions are related to genes in the WNT gene family?

Genetics Home Reference includes these conditions related to genes in the WNT gene family:

  • Müllerian aplasia and hyperandrogenism
  • Robinow syndrome
  • tetra-amelia syndrome

Where can I find additional information about the WNT gene family?

You may find the following resources about the WNT gene family helpful.

  • The Wnt Homepage, Stanford University (
  • Developmental Biology (sixth edition, 2000): The Wnt Signal Transduction Pathway (figure) ( (U.S. National Library of Medicine)
  • Molecular Biology of the Cell (fourth edition, 2002): Wnt Proteins Bind to Frizzled Receptors and Inhibit the Degradation of Beta-Catenin ( (U.S. National Library of Medicine)

What glossary definitions help with understanding the WNT gene family?

cancer ; cell ; degenerative ; differentiation ; embryonic ; gene ; ligand ; molecule ; nucleus ; proliferation ; receptor ; stem cells ; tissue

You may find definitions for these and many other terms in the Genetics Home Reference Glossary.


These sources were used to develop the Genetics Home Reference summary for the WNT gene family.

  • Reya T, Clevers H. Wnt signalling in stem cells and cancer. Nature. 2005 Apr 14;434(7035):843-50. Review. (
  • Veeman MT, Axelrod JD, Moon RT. A second canon. Functions and mechanisms of beta-catenin-independent Wnt signaling. Dev Cell. 2003 Sep;5(3):367-77. Review. (
  • Luo J, Chen J, Deng ZL, Luo X, Song WX, Sharff KA, Tang N, Haydon RC, Luu HH, He TC. Wnt signaling and human diseases: what are the therapeutic implications? Lab Invest. 2007 Feb;87(2):97-103. Epub 2007 Jan 8. Review. (
  • Nelson WJ, Nusse R. Convergence of Wnt, beta-catenin, and cadherin pathways. Science. 2004 Mar 5;303(5663):1483-7. Review. (
  • Logan CY, Nusse R. The Wnt signaling pathway in development and disease. Annu Rev Cell Dev Biol. 2004;20:781-810. Review. (
  • Nusse R. Wnt signaling in disease and in development. Cell Res. 2005 Jan;15(1):28-32. Review. (
  • Mikels AJ, Nusse R. Wnts as ligands: processing, secretion and reception. Oncogene. 2006 Dec 4;25(57):7461-8. Review. (
  • Gordon MD, Nusse R. Wnt signaling: multiple pathways, multiple receptors, and multiple transcription factors. J Biol Chem. 2006 Aug 11;281(32):22429-33. Epub 2006 Jun 22. Review. (


The resources on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Users seeking information about a personal genetic disease, syndrome, or condition should consult with a qualified healthcare professional. See How can I find a genetics professional in my area? ( in the Handbook.

Reviewed: February 2008
Published: February 8, 2016