Cell Signaling: Overview, Stages, Types of Pathways, And Signaling Molecules

What is Cell Signaling?

Cell signaling, also known as cell communication, is the process by which cells receive and respond to signals from their environment or other cells. This involves the transmission of signals through signaling molecules found on the surface and inside the cell. Cells have proteins called receptors that bind to these signaling molecules and initiate a physiological response.

Cell signaling can occur between neighboring cells or between distant cells. There are various antibodies, reagents, proteomics, kits, and consumables available for studying cell signaling.

Cell Signaling Overview

Cell signaling is the process by which cells communicate with each other and respond to their environment.

Most cell signals are chemical in nature, and they are received by cells via various signaling molecules such as growth factors, hormones, neurotransmitters, and extracellular matrix components. These signaling molecules bind specifically to other molecules called receptors on the cell surface.

The message carried by a ligand is often relayed through a chain of chemical messengers inside the cell, leading to changes in gene expression or even the induction of a whole process such as cell division.

There are three main types of cell signaling: autocrine, paracrine, and endocrine. Autocrine signaling occurs when a cell sends a signal to itself. Paracrine signaling involves the transmission of a signal from a sending cell to a receiving cell that is nearby.

Endocrine signaling occurs when cells transmit signals over long distances using the circulatory system as a distribution network for the messages they send.

Cell signaling plays an essential role in many biological processes such as development, immune response, and movement coordination. It allows cells to coordinate their activities and respond appropriately to changes in their environment.

Understanding how cells communicate with each other is crucial for developing treatments for diseases caused by abnormal cell signaling such as cancer.

Three Stages of Cell Signaling

Cell signaling is a complex communication system that governs basic cellular activities and coordinates cell actions. It can be divided into three stages: reception, transduction, and response.

The first stage of cell signaling is reception. In this stage, the signal molecule is detected by the receptor protein of the target cell. The signal molecule generally comes from outside and is new to the target cell, whereas the receptor molecules/proteins are located outside/inside the target cell.

The receptor protein binds to the signal molecule, causing it to change shape and attach like a key in a lock or a substrate in the catalytic site of an enzyme.

The second stage of cell signaling is transduction. In this stage, the signal is converted into a form that can bring about a specific cellular response. This process often involves multiple steps and amplification of the signal at each step. The activated receptor protein triggers a series of intracellular events that ultimately lead to a specific cellular response.

The third stage of cell signaling is the response. In this stage, the transduced signal finally triggers a specific cellular response such as catalysis by an enzyme, rearrangement of the cytoskeleton, or activation of specific genes in the nucleus. The response may be immediate or delayed depending on the nature of the signal and its pathway.

Types of Cells Signaling Pathways

There are different types of cell signaling pathways. One way to categorize them is based on the distance between the signaling and target cells. The four categories of chemical signaling found in multicellular organisms are paracrine, autocrine, endocrine, and direct contact signaling.

Another way to classify cell signaling pathways is based on the type of receptor involved. The four main types of receptors are intracellular receptors, ligand-gated ion channels, G-protein coupled receptors and receptor tyrosine kinases. Most cell signals are chemical in nature.

Intracellular Receptors

Intracellular receptors are receptor proteins located inside the cell, typically in the cytoplasm or nucleus. They are activated by hydrophobic ligand molecules that can pass through the plasma membrane.

Intracellular receptors bind small or lipophilic molecules such as steroid hormones, thyroid hormones, retinoids, and vitamin D. These receptors have intrinsic transcriptional activity and comprise a transcription-activating domain, a DNA-binding domain, and a ligand-binding domain.

Intracellular receptors are generally reserved for highly lipid-soluble drugs such as anti-inflammatory steroids, thyroid hormones, and vitamin A or D.

The activation of intracellular receptors leads to changes in gene expression in response to extracellular stimuli. Most cell surface receptors stimulate intracellular target enzymes that may be either directly linked or indirectly coupled to receptors by G proteins.

Ligand-gated Ion Channels

Ligand-gated ion channels (LGICs) are a group of transmembrane ion-channel proteins that allow ions such as Na+, K+, Ca2+, and/or Cl− to pass through the membrane in response to the binding of a chemical messenger (i.e. a ligand).

LGICs are integral membrane proteins that contain a pore that allows the regulated flow of selected ions across the plasma membrane. Ion flux is passive and driven by the electrochemical gradient for the permeant ions.

The ligand-gated ion channel superfamily includes nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs), adenosine triphosphate (ATP) receptors, γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, glycine, and 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptors.

The “Cys-loop” sub-family includes the ionotropic receptors for acetylcholine, GABA, glycine, and serotonin. The nicotinic acetylcholine receptor is a member of this family and is involved in fast synaptic transmission in both the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Ligand-gated ion channels play an essential role in converting chemical signals into an ion flux through the post-synaptic membrane. They are involved in various physiological processes such as muscle contraction, neurotransmission, hormone secretion, learning, memory formation, and sensory perception.

Dysfunction of LGICs has been linked to several neurological disorders such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and addiction.

G-protein Coupled Receptors

G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are the largest family of membrane proteins and mediate most cellular responses to hormones, neurotransmitters, and vision. They are found only in eukaryotes, including yeast and choanoflagellates.

GPCRs can recognize a large variety of molecules present outside the cell and activate signal transduction pathways inside the cell. Ligands that bind and activate these receptors include light-sensitive compounds, odors, pheromones, hormones, and neurotransmitters.

GPCRs have three basic regions: an extracellular portion (the N-terminus), an intracellular portion (the C-terminus), and a middle segment containing seven transmembrane domains.

When a receptor in an active state encounters a G protein, it may activate it. Some evidence suggests that receptors and G proteins are actually pre-coupled.

Further signal transduction depends on the type of G protein. The enzyme adenylate cyclase is an example of a cellular protein that can be regulated by a G protein, in this case, the G protein Gs. Adenylate cyclase activity is activated when it binds to a subunit of the activated G protein.

GPCRs regulate many cellular and physiological processes responding to diverse extracellular stimuli including light, hormones, amines, neurotransmitters, and lipids.

Some examples of GPCRs include beta-adrenergic receptors which bind epinephrine; prostaglandin E2 receptors which bind inflammatory substances called prostaglandins; and rhodopsin which contains a photoreactive chemical called retinal that mediates vision.

Receptor Tyrosine Kinases

Receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) are a type of cell surface receptor that plays an important role in cellular processes such as growth, motility, differentiation, and metabolism. RTKs are single-pass membrane proteins with an extracellular ligand-binding domain and an intracellular kinase domain.

They are activated by receptor-specific ligands such as polypeptide growth factors, cytokines, and hormones. When signaling molecules bind to RTKs, they cause neighboring RTKs to associate with each other, forming cross-linked dimers.

Cross-linking activates the tyrosine kinase activity in these RTKs through a phosphorylation – specifically, each RTK in the dimer phosphorylates multiple tyrosines on the other RTK. This process is called cross-phosphorylation.

Once cross-phosphorylated, the cytoplasmic tails of RTKs serve as docking platforms for various intracellular proteins involved in signal transduction. These proteins have a particular domain called SH2 that binds to phosphorylated tyrosines in the cytoplasmic RTK receptor tails.

The MAP kinase cascade is one of the pathways used by many growth factors such as nerve growth factor and platelet-derived growth factor to send information to the nucleus.

Not all RTKs use this pathway; for example, insulin-like growth factor receptors activate the enzyme phosphoinositide 3-kinase which leads to gene transcription.

Dysregulation of RTK signaling can lead to human diseases such as cancer. Recent large-scale genomic studies have identified activating somatic EGFR TKD mutations that are uniquely sensitive to treatment with EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs).

Mutations can also occur in extracellular domains (ECD), transmembrane domains (TMD), and juxtamembrane domains (JMD) of RTKs.

Cell Signaling Ligands

Ligands are chemical messengers that are released by signaling cells to communicate with other cells. They bind to proteins called receptors in target cells, which can result in a cellular effect such as altering gene transcription or translation, changing cell morphology, or allowing specific ions to pass through the plasma membrane.

Ligands come in many different varieties and can be produced by signaling cells as small, volatile, or soluble molecules. Examples of ligands include hormones and neurotransmitters.

There are three main types of cell-surface receptors: ion channel receptors, G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), and enzyme-linked receptors. When a ligand binds an ion channel receptor, it opens a channel through the plasma membrane that allows specific ions to pass through.

GPCRs are the largest family of cell-surface receptors and play a crucial role in many physiological processes such as vision, taste, smell, and neurotransmission. Enzyme-linked receptors have an intracellular domain that acts as an enzyme when activated by a ligand binding to its extracellular domain.

Ligands can also be classified based on their mode of action. Autocrine signals are produced by signaling cells that can also bind to the ligand that is released. This means the signaling cell and the target cell can be the same or similar cells.

Paracrine signals diffuse in a small area and only act on neighboring cells. Neural signals are a specialized subset of paracrine signals that diffuse within the synaptic cleft between adjacent neurons.

Types of Cell Signaling Molecules

Cell signaling molecules are diverse and can belong to several chemical classes, including lipids, phospholipids, amino acids, monoamines, proteins, glycoproteins, or gases.

Some examples of small hydrophilic molecules that act as signaling molecules include acetylcholine, dopamine, epinephrine (adrenaline), serotonin, histamine, glutamate, glycine, and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Hormones are another type of signaling molecule produced by endocrine glands such as the pituitary gland and the thyroid gland.

There are four categories of chemical signaling found in multicellular organisms: paracrine signaling, endocrine signaling, autocrine signaling, and direct signaling across gap junctions. Paracrine signals are released by one cell and act on neighboring target cells. Autocrine signals are produced by a cell that can also bind to the ligand that is released.

Endocrine signals are produced by specialized cells and released into the bloodstream which carries them to target cells in distant parts of the body. Direct signaling across gap junctions occurs when two adjacent cells share a membrane channel called a connexon.

Receptors play a key role in cell signaling as they detect chemical signals or physical stimuli. Receptors can be located on the cell surface or within the interior of the cell such as the cytoplasm, organelles, and nucleus. Cell surface receptors usually bind with extracellular ligands while intracellular receptors bind with intracellular ligands such as steroid hormones.

A specific cellular response is the result of transduced signal in the final stage of cell signaling which can essentially be any cellular activity present in a body such as rearrangement of the cytoskeleton or catalysis by an enzyme.

How Does Insulin Signal a Cell to Take in Glucose?

Insulin is a hormone that regulates glucose metabolism in the body. When glucose in the blood binds to a glucose receptor, a signal cascade is initiated inside the pancreas that results in insulin being released into the bloodstream. Insulin then circulates in the blood and eventually binds to insulin receptors in other cells.

The insulin receptor is embedded in the cellular membrane and has an extracellular receptor domain made up of two α-subunits and an intracellular catalytic domain made up of two β-subunits.

Once insulin binds to its receptor, it activates the insulin receptor tyrosine kinase (IR), which phosphorylates and recruits different substrate adaptors such as IRS family proteins.

Tyrosine phosphorylated IRS displays binding sites for numerous signaling partners. Among them, PI3K has a major role in insulin function, mainly via the activation of Akt/PKB and PKCζ cascades.

Activated Akt induces glycogen synthesis through inhibition of GSK-3; protein synthesis via mTOR and downstream elements; transcriptional activity; growth; mitogenic effects, which are mostly mediated by the Akt cascade as well as by activation of the Ras/MAPK pathway.

The insulin signaling pathway inhibits autophagy via ULK1 kinase, which is inhibited by Akt and mTORC1, and activated by AMPK.

Insulin stimulates glucose uptake in muscle and adipocytes via the translocation of GLUT4 vesicles to the plasma membrane. Like a key fit into a lock, insulin binds to receptors on the cell’s surface causing GLUT4 molecules to come to the cell’s surface.

Glucose transporter proteins act as vehicles to ferry glucose inside the cell. High-resolution microscopy studies have shown how insulin prompts fat cells to take in glucose – findings that could aid in understanding diabetes-related conditions.