Imagine what life would be like if you and the people around you could not communicate. You would not be able to express your wishes to others, nor could you ask questions to find out more about your environment. Social organization is dependent on communication between the individuals that comprise that society; without communication, society would fall apart.

As with people, it is vital for individual cells to be able to interact with their environment. This is true whether a cell is growing by itself in a pond or is one of many cells that form a larger organism. In order to properly respond to external stimuli, cells have developed complex mechanisms of communication that can receive a message, transfer the information across the plasma membrane, and then produce changes within the cell in response to the message.

In multicellular organisms, cells send and receive chemical messages constantly to coordinate the actions of distant organs, tissues, and cells. The ability to send messages quickly and efficiently enables cells to coordinate and fine-tune their functions.

While the necessity for cellular communication in larger organisms seems obvious, even single-celled organisms communicate with each other. Yeast cells signal each other to aid mating. Some forms of bacteria coordinate their actions in order to form large complexes called biofilms or to organize the production of toxins to remove competing organisms. The ability of cells to communicate through chemical signals originated in single cells and was essential for the evolution of multicellular organisms. The efficient and error-free function of communication systems is vital for all life as we know it.

Receptors are protein molecules inside the target cell or on its surface that receive a chemical signal. Chemical signals are released by signaling cells in the form of small, usually volatile or soluble molecules called ligands. A ligand is a molecule that binds another specific molecule, in some cases, delivering a signal in the process. Ligands can thus be thought of as signaling molecules. Ligands and receptors exist in several varieties; however, a specific ligand will have a specific receptor that typically binds only that ligand.

There are two basic types of receptors: internal receptors and cell surface receptors.

  • Internal receptors are found in the cytoplasm of the cell and respond to ligands that cross the cell membrane into the cell. These receptors can have a direct effect on protein production by binding directly to the DNA.
  • Cell-surface receptors are found on the cell membrane. They bind to ligands that do not cross the cell membrane. After the ligand binds, the receptor responds in some way. One response is to open a channel to allow ions to pass through the membrane. A second response is to activate an enzyme that sets off a response inside the cell. A third response is to activate a protein which is not an enzyme, but which can affect other cell components.

There are several different types of ligands.

  • Small hydrophobic ligands can pass directly through the cell membrane. They typically interact with internal receptors. Steroid hormones are an example.
  • Water soluble hydrophilic ligands can not pass directly through the cell membrane. They typically interact with cell-surface receptors. Peptide (protein) hormones are an example.
  • There are a variety of other ligands such as nitric oxide (NO) gas. Nitroglycerin and Viagra affect the NO pathway.

Once a ligand binds to a receptor, the signal is transmitted through the membrane and into the cytoplasm. Continuation of a signal in this manner is called signal transduction. Signal transduction only occurs with cell-surface receptors because internal receptors are able to interact directly with DNA in the nucleus to initiate protein synthesis.

Signal transduction pathways can be extremely complicated and involve large numbers of enzymes and other proteins. These pathways can help amplify a signal received by one receptor. There can also be different effects from the same ligand in different cell types due to different proteins present in different types of cells.

  • Kinases are a type of enzyme that adds a phosphate group to another molecule (including other proteins). This is called phosphorylation. Phosphorylation can activate or deactivate other proteins.
  • Second messengers are small molecules that help to spread a signal through the cytoplasm after a ligand binds to a receptor. They do this by altering the behavior of certain cellular proteins. Some examples of second messengers are cAMP (a modified version of AMP, which is related to ATP but only contains one phosphate) and calcium ions.

There are several categories of cellular responses to signals.

  • Changes in gene expression: an increase or decrease in the production of a protein produced by a specific gene.
  • An increase in cellular metabolism: the conversion of glucose to glycogen (and back) can be regulated depending on the energy needs of the cell.
  • Cell growth: cells do not normally divide unless they are stimulated by signals from other cells.
  • Cell death: apoptosis is controlled cell death; cells can be stimulated die if they are abnormal, infected with a bacteria or virus, or during specific parts of development (for example, to separate the fingers).

Stopping cell signaling pathways at the right time is just as important as starting them correctly. Tumors often display abnormal responses to cell signaling pathways.


OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. October 13, 2017. https://cnx.org/contents/GFy_h8cu@10.118:1e9l33C7@2/Introduction


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MHCC Biology 112: Biology for Health Professions Copyright © 2019 by Lisa Bartee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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