2-6-2. Signaling Molecules and Cellular Receptors
There are two kinds of communication in the world of living cells. Communication between cells is called
Chemical signals are released by
Forms of Signaling
There are four categories of chemical signaling found in multicellular organisms: paracrine signaling, endocrine signaling, autocrine signaling, and direct signaling across gap junctions (Figure 1). The main difference between the different categories of signaling is the distance that the signal travels through the organism to reach the target cell. Not all cells are affected by the same signals.
Signals that act locally between cells that are close together are called
One example of paracrine signaling is the transfer of signals across synapses between nerve cells. A nerve cell consists of a cell body, several short, branched extensions called dendrites that receive stimuli, and a long extension called an axon, which transmits signals to other nerve cells or muscle cells. The junction between nerve cells where signal transmission occurs is called a synapse. A
When the neurotransmitter binds the receptor on the surface of the postsynaptic cell, the electrochemical potential of the target cell changes, and the next electrical impulse is launched. The neurotransmitters that are released into the chemical synapse are degraded quickly or get reabsorbed by the presynaptic cell so that the recipient nerve cell can recover quickly and be prepared to respond rapidly to the next synaptic signal.
Signals from distant cells are called
Hormones travel the large distances between endocrine cells and their target cells via the bloodstream, which is a relatively slow way to move throughout the body. Because of their form of transport, hormones get diluted and are present in low concentrations when they act on their target cells. This is different from paracrine signaling, in which local concentrations of ligands can be very high.
Direct Signaling Across Gap Junctions
Gap junctions in animals and plasmodesmata in plants are connections between the plasma membranes of neighboring cells. These water-filled channels allow small signaling molecules, called
Types of Receptors
Receptors are protein molecules in the target cell or on its surface that bind ligand. There are two types of receptors, internal receptors and cell-surface receptors.
Because cell-surface receptor proteins are fundamental to normal cell functioning, it should come as no surprise that a malfunction in any one of these proteins could have severe consequences. Errors in the protein structures of certain receptor molecules have been shown to play a role in hypertension (high blood pressure), asthma, heart disease, and cancer.
Each cell-surface receptor has three main components: an external ligand-binding domain, a hydrophobic membrane-spanning region, and an intracellular domain inside the cell. The ligand-binding domain is also called the
How Viruses Recognize a Host
Unlike living cells, many viruses do not have a plasma membrane or any of the structures necessary to sustain life. Some viruses are simply composed of an inert protein shell containing DNA or RNA. To reproduce, viruses must invade a living cell, which serves as a host, and then take over the hosts cellular apparatus. But how does a virus recognize its host?
Viruses often bind to cell-surface receptors on the host cell. For example, the virus that causes human influenza (flu) binds specifically to receptors on membranes of cells of the respiratory system. Chemical differences in the cell-surface receptors among hosts mean that a virus that infects a specific species (for example, humans) cannot infect another species (for example, chickens).
However, viruses have very small amounts of DNA or RNA compared to humans, and, as a result, viral reproduction can occur rapidly. Viral reproduction invariably produces errors that can lead to changes in newly produced viruses; these changes mean that the viral proteins that interact with cell-surface receptors may evolve in such a way that they can bind to receptors in a new host. Such changes happen randomly and quite often in the reproductive cycle of a virus, but the changes only matter if a virus with new binding properties comes into contact with a suitable host. In the case of influenza, this situation can occur in settings where animals and people are in close contact, such as poultry and swine farms.1 Once a virus jumps to a new host, it can spread quickly. Scientists watch newly appearing viruses (called emerging viruses) closely in the hope that such monitoring can reduce the likelihood of global viral epidemics.
1. A. B. Sigalov, The School of Nature. IV. Learning from Viruses, Self/Nonself 1, no. 4 (2010): 282-298. Y. Cao, X. Koh, L. Dong, X. Du, A. Wu, X. Ding, H. Deng, Y. Shu, J. Chen, T. Jiang, Rapid Estimation of Binding Activity of Influenza Virus Hemagglutinin to Human and Avian Receptors, PLoS One 6, no. 4 (2011): e18664.
Cell-surface receptors are involved in most of the signaling in multicellular organisms. There are three general categories of cell-surface receptors: ion channel-linked receptors, G-protein-linked receptors, and enzyme-linked receptors.
Cell signaling using G-protein-linked receptors occurs as a cyclic series of events. Before the ligand binds, the inactive G-protein can bind to a newly revealed site on the receptor specific for its binding. Once the G-protein binds to the receptor, the resultant shape change activates the G-protein, which releases GDP and picks up GTP. The subunits of the G-protein then split into the α subunit and the βγ subunit. One or both of these G-protein fragments may be able to activate other proteins as a result. After awhile, the GTP on the active α subunit of the G-protein is hydrolyzed to GDP and the βγ subunit is deactivated. The subunits reassociate to form the inactive G-protein and the cycle begins anew.
G-protein-linked receptors have been extensively studied and much has been learned about their roles in maintaining health. Bacteria that are pathogenic to humans can release poisons that interrupt specific G-protein-linked receptor function, leading to illnesses such as pertussis, botulism, and cholera. In cholera (Figure 6), for example, the water-borne bacterium Vibrio cholerae produces a toxin, choleragen, that binds to cells lining the small intestine. The toxin then enters these intestinal cells, where it modifies a G-protein that controls the opening of a chloride channel and causes it to remain continuously active, resulting in large losses of fluids from the body and potentially fatal dehydration as a result.
HER2 is a receptor tyrosine kinase. In 30 percent of human breast cancers, HER2 is permanently activated, resulting in unregulated cell division. Lapatinib, a drug used to treat breast cancer, inhibits HER2 receptor tyrosine kinase autophosphorylation (the process by which the receptor adds phosphates onto itself), thus reducing tumor growth by 50 percent. Besides autophosphorylation, which of the following steps would be inhibited by Lapatinib?
Produced by signaling cells and the subsequent binding to receptors in target cells, ligands act as chemical signals that travel to the target cells to coordinate responses. The types of molecules that serve as ligands are incredibly varied and range from small proteins to small ions like calcium (Ca2+).
Small Hydrophobic Ligands
Small hydrophobic ligands can directly diffuse through the plasma membrane and interact with internal receptors. Important members of this class of ligands are the steroid hormones. Steroids are lipids that have a hydrocarbon skeleton with four fused rings; different steroids have different functional groups attached to the carbon skeleton. Steroid hormones include the female sex hormone, estradiol, which is a type of estrogen; the male sex hormone, testosterone; and cholesterol, which is an important structural component of biological membranes and a precursor of steriod hormones (Figure 8). Other hydrophobic hormones include thyroid hormones and vitamin D. In order to be soluble in blood, hydrophobic ligands must bind to carrier proteins while they are being transported through the bloodstream.
Water-soluble ligands are polar and therefore cannot pass through the plasma membrane unaided; sometimes, they are too large to pass through the membrane at all. Instead, most water-soluble ligands bind to the extracellular domain of cell-surface receptors. This group of ligands is quite diverse and includes small molecules, peptides, and proteins.
Nitric oxide (NO) is a gas that also acts as a ligand. It is able to diffuse directly across the plasma membrane, and one of its roles is to interact with receptors in smooth muscle and induce relaxation of the tissue. NO has a very short half-life and therefore only functions over short distances. Nitroglycerin, a treatment for heart disease, acts by triggering the release of NO, which causes blood vessels to dilate (expand), thus restoring blood flow to the heart. NO has become better known recently because the pathway that it affects is targeted by prescription medications for erectile dysfunction, such as Viagra (erection involves dilated blood vessels).
Cells communicate by both inter- and intracellular signaling. Signaling cells secrete ligands that bind to target cells and initiate a chain of events within the target cell. The four categories of signaling in multicellular organisms are paracrine signaling, endocrine signaling, autocrine signaling, and direct signaling across gap junctions. Paracrine signaling takes place over short distances. Endocrine signals are carried long distances through the bloodstream by hormones, and autocrine signals are received by the same cell that sent the signal or other nearby cells of the same kind. Gap junctions allow small molecules, including signaling molecules, to flow between neighboring cells.
Internal receptors are found in the cell cytoplasm. Here, they bind ligand molecules that cross the plasma membrane; these receptor-ligand complexes move to the nucleus and interact directly with cellular DNA. Cell-surface receptors transmit a signal from outside the cell to the cytoplasm. Ion channel-linked receptors, when bound to their ligands, form a pore through the plasma membrane through which certain ions can pass. G-protein-linked receptors interact with a G-protein on the cytoplasmic side of the plasma membrane, promoting the exchange of bound GDP for GTP and interacting with other enzymes or ion channels to transmit a signal. Enzyme-linked receptors transmit a signal from outside the cell to an intracellular domain of a membrane-bound enzyme. Ligand binding causes activation of the enzyme. Small hydrophobic ligands (like steroids) are able to penetrate the plasma membrane and bind to internal receptors. Water-soluble hydrophilic ligands are unable to pass through the membrane; instead, they bind to cell-surface receptors, which transmit the signal to the inside of the cell.
Figure 7. HER2 is a receptor tyrosine kinase. In 30 percent of human breast cancers, HER2 is permanently activated, resulting in unregulated cell division. Lapatinib, a drug used to treat breast cancer, inhibits HER2 receptor tyrosine kinase autophosphorylation (the process by which the receptor adds phosphates onto itself), thus reducing tumor growth by 50 percent. Besides autophosphorylation, which of the following steps would be inhibited by Lapatinib?
Figure 7. C. The downstream cellular response would be inhibited.
What property prevents the ligands of cell-surface receptors from entering the cell?
The secretion of hormones by the pituitary gland is an example of _______________.
Why are ion channels necessary to transport ions into or out of a cell?
Endocrine signals are transmitted more slowly than paracrine signals because ___________.
What is the difference between intracellular signaling and intercellular signaling?
Intracellular signaling occurs within a cell, and intercellular signaling occurs between cells.
How are the effects of paracrine signaling limited to an area near the signaling cells?
The secreted ligands are quickly removed by degradation or reabsorption into the cell so that they cannot travel far.
What are the differences between internal receptors and cell-surface receptors?
Internal receptors are located inside the cell, and their ligands enter the cell to bind the receptor. The complex formed by the internal receptor and the ligand then enters the nucleus and directly affects protein production by binding to the chromosomal DNA and initiating the making of mRNA that codes for proteins. Cell-surface receptors, however, are embedded in the plasma membrane, and their ligands do not enter the cell. Binding of the ligand to the cell-surface receptor initiates a cell signaling cascade and does not directly influence the making of proteins; however, it may involve the activation of intracellular proteins.
Cells grown in the laboratory are mixed with a dye molecule that is unable to pass through the plasma membrane. If a ligand is added to the cells, observations show that the dye enters the cells. What type of receptor did the ligand bind to on the cell surface?
An ion channel receptor opened up a pore in the membrane, which allowed the ionic dye to move into the cell.
ion channel-linked receptor