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Cell signaling is part of a complex system of communication that governs basic cellular activities and coordinates cell actions. The ability of cells to perceive and correctly respond to their microenvironment is the basis of development, tissue repair, and immunity as well as normal tissue homeostasis. Errors in cellular information processing are responsible for diseases such as cancer, autoimmunity, and diabetes. By understanding cell signaling, we can treat diseases effectively and, potentially, build artificial tissues.
Traditional work in biology has focused on studying individual parts of cell signaling pathways. Systems biology research helps us understand the underlying structure of cell signaling networks and how changes in these networks can affect the transmission of information.
Unicellular and multicellular organism cell signaling
Cell signaling has been most extensively studied in the context of human diseases and signaling between cells of a single organism. However, cell signaling can also occur between the cells of two different organisms. In many mammals, early embryo cells exchange signals with cells of the uterus . In the human gastrointestinal tract, bacteria exchange signals with each other and with human epithelial and immune system cells . For the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae during mating, some cells send a peptide signal (mating factor) into their environment. The mating factor peptide can bind to a cell surface receptor on other yeast cells and induce them to prepare for mating.
Types of signals
Some cell-to-cell communication requires direct cell-cell contact. Some cells can form gap junctions that connect their cytoplasm to the cytoplasm of adjacent cells. In cardiac muscle, gap junctions between adjacent cells allows for action potential propagation from the cardiac pacemaker region of the heart to spread and coordinately cause contraction of the heart.
The Notch signaling mechanism is an example of juxtacrine signalling in which two adjacent cells must make physical contact in order to communicate. This requirement for direct contact allows for very precise control of cell differentiation during embryonic development. In the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, two cells of the developing gonad each have an equal chance of terminally differentiating or becoming a uterine precursor cell that continues to divide. The choice of which cell continues to divide is controlled by competition of cell surface signals. One cell will happen to produce more of a cell surface protein that activates the Notch receptor on the adjacent cell. This activates a feedback system that reduces Notch expression in the cell that will differentiate and increases Notch on the surface of the cell that continues as a stem cell .
Many cell signals are carried by molecules that are released by one cell and move to make contact with another cell. Endocrine signals are called hormones. Hormones are produced by endocrine cells and they travel through the blood to reach all parts of the body. Specificity of signaling can be controlled if only some cells can respond to a particular hormone. Paracrine signals target only cells in the vicinity of the emitting cell. Neurotransmitters represent an example. Some signaling molecules can function as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. For example, epinephrine and norepinephrine can function as a hormones when released from the adrenal gland and transported to the heart by way of the blood stream. Norepinephrine can also be produced by neurons and function as a neurotransmitter in the brain . Estrogen can be released by the ovary and function as a hormone or act locally via paracrine or autocrine signaling .
Receptors for cell signals
Cells receive information from their environment through a class of proteins known as receptors. Notch is a cell surface protein that functions as a receptor. Animals have a small set of genes that code for signaling proteins that interact specifically with Notch receptors and stimulate a response in cells that express Notch on their surface. Molecules that activate (or, in some cases, inhibit) receptors can be classified as hormones, neurotransmitters, cytokines, growth factors but all of these are called receptor ligands. The details of ligand-receptor interactions are fundamental to cell signaling.
As shown in Figure 2 (above, left), Notch acts as a receptor for ligands that are expressed on adjacent cells. While many receptors are cell surface proteins, some are found inside cells. For example, estrogen is a hydrophobic molecule that can pass through the lipid bilayer of cell surface membranes. Estrogen receptors inside cells of the uterus can be activated by estrogen that comes from the ovaries, enters the target cells, and binds to estrogen receptors.
In some cases, receptor activation caused by ligand binding to a receptor is directly coupled to the cell's response to the ligand. For example, the neurotransmitter GABA can activate a cell surface receptor that is part of an ion channel. GABA binding to a GABA A receptor on a neuron opens a chloride-selective ion channel that is part of the receptor. GABA A receptor activation allows negatively charged chloride ions to move into the neuron which inhibits the ability of the neuron to produce action potentials. However, for many cell surface receptors, ligand-receptor interactions are not directly linked to the cell's response. The activated receptor must first interact with other proteins inside the cell before the ultimate physiological effect of the ligand on the cell's behavior is produced. Often, the behavior of a chain of several interacting cell proteins is altered following receptor activation. The entire set of cell changes induced by receptor activation is called a signal transduction mechanism or pathway.
In the case of Notch-mediated signaling, the signal transduction mechanism can be relatively simple. As shown in Figure 2 (above, left), activation of Notch can cause the Notch protein to be altered by a protease. Part of the Notch protein is released from the cell surface membrane and can act to change the pattern of gene transcription in the cell nucleus. This causes the responding cell to make different proteins, resulting in an altered pattern of cell behavior. Cell signaling research involves studying the spatial and temporal dynamics of both receptors and the components of signaling pathways that are activated by receptors in various cell types.
A more complex signal transduction pathway is shown in Figure 3. Many growth factors bind to receptors at the cell surface and stimulate cells to progress through the cell cycle and divide. One of the signal transduction pathways that is activated by growth factors is called the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway. The signal transduction component labeled as "MAPK" in the pathway was originally called "ERK" so the pathway is called the MAPK/ERK pathway. The MAPK protein is an enzyme, a protein kinase that can attach phosphate to target proteins such as the transcription factor MYC and thus alter gene transcription and, ultimately, cell cycle progression. Many cellular proteins are activate downstream of the growth factor receptors (such as EGFR) that activate this signal transduction pathway.
Complex multi-component signal transduction pathways provide oportunities for feedback, signal amplification, and interactions inside one cell between multiple signals and signaling pathways.
Classification of intercellular communication
- Main article: Endocrine System
- Intracrine signals are produced within the target cell.
- Autocrine signals target the cell itself. Sometimes autocrine cells can target cells close by if they are the same type of cell as the emitting cell. An example of this are immune cells.
- Juxtacrine signals target adjacent (touching) cells. These signals are transmitted along cell membranes via protein or lipid components integral to the membrane and are capable of affecting either the emitting cell or cells immediately adjacent.
- Paracrine signals target cells in the vicinity of the emitting cell. Neurotransmitters represent an example.
- Endocrine signals target distant cells. Endocrine cells produce hormones that travel through the blood to reach all parts of the body.
- Cell Signaling Networks
- Retrograde signaling
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- Cell Communication, Chapter 15 in Molecular Biology of the Cell fourth edition, edited by Bruce Alberts (2002) published by Garland Science.
- Cell Signaling, Chapter 13 in The Cell - A Molecular Approach second edition, by Geoffrey M. Cooper (2000) published by Sinauer Associates.
- Cell-to-Cell Signaling, Chapter 20 in Molecular Cell Biology fourth edition, edited by Harvey Lodish (2000) published by W. H. Freeman and Company.
Cell physiology: cell signaling
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