Cell Signaling

Cell Signaling Definition

Cell signaling refers to the vast networks of communication that occur between and within each cell in our body. Unlike the stable bricks that lay the foundation of our houses, cells are dynamic and ever-active building blocks. In effect, cell signaling makes this possible. With cell signaling, cells are able to coordinate everything from neonatal development to large, cascading immune responses against bacteria or viruses.

Three Stages of Cell Signaling

At its core, however, cell-to-cell signaling can simply be described as the production of a “signal” by one cell. This signal is then received by a “target” cell. In effect, signal transduction is said to have three stages:

  1. First, reception, whereby the signal molecule binds the receptor
  2. Then, signal transduction, which is where the chemical signal results in a series of enzyme activations
  3. Finally, the response, which is the resulting cellular responses.

Cell Signaling Pathways

Typically, cell signaling is either mechanical or biochemical and can occur locally. Additionally, categories of cell signaling are determined by the distance a ligand must travel. Likewise, hydrophobic ligands have fatty properties and include steroid hormones and vitamin D3. These molecules are able to diffuse across the target cell’s plasma membrane to bind intracellular receptors inside. On the other hand, hydrophilic ligands are often amino-acid derived. Instead, these molecules will bind to receptors on the surface of the cell. Comparatively, these polar molecules allow the signal to travel through the aqueous environment of our bodies without assistance.

Protein molecular structure
The image depicts the molecular structure of signal molecule binding to a target protein.

Types of Signaling Molecules

Signaling molecules are currently assigned one of five classifications.

  • Intracrine ligands are produced by the target cell. Then, they bind to a receptor within the cell.
  • Autocrine ligands are distinct in that they function internally and on other target cells (ex. Immune cells).
  • Juxtacrine ligands target adjacent cells (often called “contact-dependent” signaling).
  • Paracrine ligands target cells only in the vicinity of the original emitting cell (ex. Neurotransmitters).
  • Lastly, Endocrine cells produce hormones that have the important task of targeting distant cells and often travel through our circulatory system.

Cell Signaling Function and Key Players

As mentioned previously, cell signaling serves a vital purpose in allowing our cells to carry out life as we know it. Moreover, thanks to the concerted efforts of our cells via their signaling molecules, our body is able to orchestrate the many complexities that maintain life. These complexities, in effect, demand a diverse collection of receptor-mediated pathways that execute their unique functions.

Intracellular Receptors

A common type of signaling receptor is Intracellular Receptors, which are located within the cytoplasm of the cell and generally include two types. In addition to cytoplasmic receptors, nuclear receptors are a special class of protein with diverse DNA binding domain that, when bound to steroid or thyroid hormones, form a complex that enters the nucleus and modulates the transcription of a gene. IP3 receptors are another class, which are located in the endoplasmic reticulum and carry out important functions like the release of Ca2+ that is so crucial for the contraction of our muscles and plasticity of our neural cells.

Ligand-gated ion channels

Spanning our plasma membranes are another type of receptor called Ligand-gated ion channels that allow hydrophilic ions to cross the thick fatty membranes of our cells and organelles. When bound to a neurotransmitter like acetylcholine, ions (commonly K+, Na+, Ca2+, or Cl) are allowed to flow through the membrane to allow the life-sustaining function of neural firing to take place, among many other functions!

G-protein coupled receptors

Comparatively, G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) remain the largest and most diverse group of membrane receptors in eukaryotes. In fact, they are special in that they receive input from a diverse group of signals ranging from light energy to peptides and sugars. In effect, their mechanism of action also starts with a ligand binding to its receptor. However, the demarcation is that ligand binding results in the activation of a G protein that is then able to transmit an entire cascade of enzyme and second messenger activations that carry out an incredible array of functions like sight, sensation, inflammation, and growth.

Receptor Tyrosine Kinases

Likewise, receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) are another class of receptors revealed to show diversity in their actions and mechanisms of activation. For example, the general method of activation follows a ligand binding to the receptor tyrosine kinase, which allows their kinase domains to dimerize. Then, this dimerization invites the phosphorylation of their tyrosine kinase domains that, in turn, allow intracellular proteins to bind the phosphorylated sites and become “active.” An important function of receptor tyrosine kinases is their roles in mediating growth pathways. Of course, the downside of having complex signaling networks lies in the unforeseen ways in which any alteration can produce disease or unregulated growth – cancer. Still, much is yet to be understood about cell signaling pathways, but one appreciable fact is that the importance they carry is nothing short of monumental.

Signal transduction
For example, this figure depicts various forms of RTK and GPCR-mediated Signal Transduction.


1. Correctly name the types of signaling molecules used in cell signaling:

2. Define Endocrine signaling:

3. Name the distinction between Juxtacrine and Paracrine signals:

4. Why is it important that cells have the ability to signal one another?

5. Progesterone is a sex hormone that has different effects on different cellular receptors. Some receptors it activates, while others it blocks. Why could this be beneficial evolutionarily?



  • Cooper GM. (2000). The Cell: A Molecular Approach. 2nd edition. Signaling Molecules and Their Receptors. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9924/
  • Lodish, H., Berk, A., Kaiser, C. A., Krieger, M., Scott, M. P., Bretscher, A., . . . Matsudaira, P. (2008). <em>Molecular Cell Biology</em>(6th ed.). New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • Nelson, D. L., & Cox, M. M. (2008). <em>Principles of Biochemistry.</em>New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • Widmaier, E. P., Raff, H., & Strang, K. T. (2008). <em>Vander’s Human Physiology: The Mechanisms of Body Function</em> (11th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education
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