At the heart of our research projects are Wnt proteins and their signaling pathways. Wnt genes encode a family of secreted lipid-modified growth factors (there are 19 Wnt genes in the mammalian genome) that regulate embryonic development and tissue homeostasis. Deregulated Wnt signaling impacts a large number of human diseases, including neurodegeneration and cancer.
In the Willert lab, we incorporate biochemical, genetic and cell biological approaches to study these proteins and their signaling cascades. As a model system to study to role of Wnt signaling, we primarily use human pluripotent stem cells (including both embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells). These stem cells can be instructed, in part through the addition of purified Wnt proteins, to differentiate into a variety of mature cells. More recently, we started a collaboration with Dr. Traver to study the role of Wnt signaling in the development of blood stem cells in zebrafish.