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, nor could you ask questions to find out more about your environment. Social organization is dependent on communication between the individuals; without communication, society would fall apart.
As with people, it is vital for a cell to interact with its environment. This is true whether it is a unicellular organism or one of many cells forming a larger organism. In order to respond to external stimuli, cells have developed complex mechanisms of communication that can receive a message, transfer the information across the plasma membrane, and 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.
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 in 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.
Cell signaling is vital to the survival of organisms. For example, chemical signals tell cells when to make hormones such as insulin. Cell division also depends on chemical signals. When the chemical signals do not function properly, cells can divide uncontrollably, forming cancerous tumors. Scientists recently discovered a cell signaling pathway that protects cancer cells from being killed by the body’s immune system. The hope is to use this knowledge to create treatments that target this cell signaling pathway so that the cancer cells self destruct.
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There are two kinds of communication in the world of living cells. Communication between cells is called intercellular signaling, and communication within a cell is called intracellular signaling. An easy way to remember the distinction is by understanding the Latin origin of the prefixes: inter- means "between" (for example, intersecting lines are those that cross each other) and intra- means "inside" (like intravenous).
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During signal transduction, a series of relay proteins inside the cytoplasm of the target cell activate target proteins, resulting in a cellular response. These cascades are complex because of the interplay between proteins. A significant contributor to cell signaling cascades is the phosphorylation of molecules by enzymes known as kinases. (Substrate–level phosphorylation was studied when you learned about glycolysis.) By adding a phosphate group, phosphorylation changes the shapes of proteins. This change in shape activates or inactivates them. Second messengers, e.g., cAMP and Ca2+, are often used to transmit signals within a cell.
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Inside the cell, ligands bind to their internal receptors, allowing them to directly affect the cell’s DNA and protein-producing machinery. Using signal transduction pathways, receptors in the plasma membrane produce a variety of effects on the cell. The results of signaling pathways are extremely varied and depend on the type of cell involved as well as the external and internal conditions. A small sampling of responses is described below.
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Cell signaling allows bacteria to respond to environmental cues, such as nutrient levels and quorum sensing (cell density). Yeasts are eukaryotes (fungi), and the components and processes found in yeast signals are similar to those of cell-surface receptor signals in multicellular organisms. For example, budding yeasts often release mating factors that enable them to participate in a process that is similar to sexual reproduction.