An overview of major signal transduction pathways in mammals.

Signal transduction occurs when an extracellular signaling[1] molecule activates a specific receptor located on the cell surface or inside the cell. In turn, this receptor triggers a biochemical chain of events inside the cell, creating a response.[2] Depending on the cell, the response alters the cell's metabolism, shape, gene expression, or ability to divide.[3] The signal can be amplified at any step. Thus, one signaling molecule can cause many responses.[4]


Occurrence of the term signal transduction in papers since 1977. These figures were derived by an analysis of the papers contained within the MEDLINE database.

In 1970, Martin Rodbell examined the effects of glucagon on a rat's liver cell membrane receptor. He noted that guanosine triphosphate disassociated glucagon from this receptor and stimulated the G-protein, which strongly influenced the cell's metabolism. Thus, he deduced that the G-protein is a transducer that accepts glucagon molecules and affects the cell.[5] For this, he shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Alfred G. Gilman.

The earliest MEDLINE entry for "signal transduction" dates from 1972.[6] Some early articles used the terms signal transmission and sensory transduction.[7][8] In 2007, a total of 48,377 scientific papers—including 11,211 review papers—were published on the subject. The term first appeared in a paper's title in 1979.[9][10] Widespread use of the term has been traced to a 1980 review article by Rodbell:[5][11] Research papers focusing on signal transduction first appeared in large numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.[12]

Signal transduction involves the binding of extracellular signalling molecules and ligands to cell-surface receptors that trigger events inside the cell. The combination of messenger with receptor causes a change in the conformation of the receptor, known as receptor activation. This activation is always the initial step (the cause) leading to the cell's ultimate responses (effect) to the messenger. Despite the myriad of these ultimate responses, they are all directly due to changes in particular cell proteins. Intracellular signaling cascades can be started through cell-substratum interactions; examples are the integrin that binds ligands in the extracellular matrix and steroids.[13] Most steroid hormones have receptors within the cytoplasm and act by stimulating the binding of their receptors to the promoter region of steroid-responsive genes.[14] Examples of signaling molecules include the hormone melatonin,[15] the neurotransmitter acetylcholine[16] and the cytokine interferon γ.[17]

The classifications of signalling molecules do not take into account the molecular nature of each class member; neurotransmitters range in size from small molecules such as dopamine[18] to neuropeptides such as endorphins.[19] Some molecules may fit into more than one class; for example, epinephrine is a neurotransmitter when secreted by the central nervous system and a hormone when secreted by the adrenal medulla.

Environmental stimuli

With Sensing of environments at the cellular level relies on signal transduction; many disease processes, such as diabetes and heart disease arise from defects in these pathways, highlighting the importance of this process in biology and medicine.

Various environmental stimuli exist that initiate signal transmission processes in multicellular organisms; examples include slime molds secrete cyclic adenosine monophosphate upon starvation, stimulating individual cells in the immediate environment to aggregate,[22] and yeast cells use mating factors to determine the mating types of other cells and to participate in sexual reproduction.[23]


Receptors can be roughly divided into two major classes: intracellular receptors and extracellular receptors.


Extracellular receptors are integral transmembrane proteins and make up most receptors. They span the plasma membrane of the cell, with one part of the receptor on the outside of the cell and the other on the inside. Signal transduction occurs as a result of a ligand binding to the outside; the molecule does not pass through the membrane. This binding stimulates a series of events inside the cell; different types of receptors stimulate different responses and receptors typically respond to only the binding of a specific ligand. Upon binding, the ligand induces a change in the conformation of the inside part of the receptor.[24] These result in either the activation of an enzyme in the receptor or the exposure of a binding site for other intracellular signaling proteins within the cell, eventually propagating the signal through the cytoplasm.

In eukaryotic cells, most intracellular proteins activated by a ligand/receptor interaction possess an enzymatic activity; examples include tyrosine kinase and phosphatases. Some of them create second messengers such as cyclic AMP and IP3, the latter controlling the release of intracellular calcium stores into the cytoplasm. Other activated proteins interact with adaptor proteins that facilitate signalling protein interactions and coordination of signalling complexes necessary to respond to a particular stimulus. Enzymes and adaptor proteins are both responsive to various second messenger molecules.

Many adaptor proteins and enzymes activated as part of signal transduction possess specialized protein domains that bind to specific secondary messenger molecules. For example, calcium ions bind to the EF hand domains of calmodulin, allowing it to bind and activate calmodulin-dependent kinase. PIP3 and other phosphoinositides do the same thing to the Pleckstrin homology domains of proteins such as the kinase protein AKT.

G protein-coupled

G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are a family of integral transmembrane proteins that possess seven transmembrane domains and are linked to a heterotrimeric G protein. Many receptors are in this family, including adrenergic receptors and chemokine receptors.

Signal transduction by a GPCR begins with an inactive G protein coupled to the receptor; it exists as a heterotrimer consisting of Gα, Gβ, and Gγ.[25] Once the GPCR recognizes a ligand, the conformation of the receptor changes to activate the G protein, causing Gα to bind a molecule of GTP and dissociate from the other two G-protein subunits. The dissociation exposes sites on the subunits that can interact with other molecules.[26] The activated G protein subunits detach from the receptor and initiate signaling from many downstream effector proteins such as phospholipases and ion channels, the latter permitting the release of second messenger molecules.[27] The total strength of signal amplification by a GPCR is determined by the lifetimes of the ligand-receptor complex and receptor-effector protein complex and the deactivation time of the activated receptor and effectors through intrinsic enzymatic activity.

A study was conducted where a point mutation was inserted into the gene encoding the chemokine receptor CXCR2; mutated cells underwent a malignant transformation due to the expression of CXCR2 in an active conformation despite the absence of chemokine-binding. This meant that chemokine receptors can contribute to cancer development.[28]

Tyrosine and histidine kinase

Receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) are transmembrane proteins with an intracellular kinase domain and an extracellular domain that binds ligands; examples include growth factor receptors such as the insulin receptor.[29] To perform signal transduction, RTKs need to form dimers in the plasma membrane;[30] the dimer is stabilized by ligands binding to the receptor. The interaction between the cytoplasmic domains stimulates the autophosphorylation of tyrosines within the domains of the RTKs, causing conformational changes. Subsequent to this, the receptors' kinase domains are activated, initiating phosphorylation signaling cascades of downstream cytoplasmic molecules that facilitate various cellular processes such as cell differentiation and metabolism.[29]

As is the case with GPCRs, proteins that bind GTP play a major role in signal transduction from the activated RTK into the cell. In this case, the G proteins are members of the Ras, Rho, and Raf families, referred to collectively as small G proteins. They act as molecular switches usually tethered to membranes by isoprenyl groups linked to their carboxyl ends. Upon activation, they assign proteins to specific membrane subdomains where they participate in signaling. Activated RTKs in turn activate small G proteins that activate guanine nucleotide exchange factors such as SOS1. Once activated, these exchange factors can activate more small G proteins, thus amplifying the receptor's initial signal. The mutation of certain RTK genes, as with that of GPCRs, can result in the expression of receptors that exist in a constitutively activate state; such mutated genes may act as oncogenes.[31]

Histidine-specific protein kinases are structurally distinct from other protein kinases and are found in prokaryotes, fungi, and plants as part of a two-component signal transduction mechanism: a phosphate group from ATP is first added to a histidine residue within the kinase, then transferred to an aspartate residue on a receiver domain on a different protein or the kinase itself, thus activating the aspartate residue.[32]


An overview of integrin-mediated signal transduction, adapted from Hehlgens et al. (2007).[33]

Integrins are produced by a wide variety of cells; they play a role in cell attachment to other cells and the extracellular matrix and in the transduction of signals from extracellular matrix components such as fibronectin and collagen. Ligand binding to the extracellular domain of integrins changes the protein's conformation, clustering it at the cell membrane to initiate signal transduction. Integrins lack kinase activity; hence, integrin-mediated signal transduction is achieved through a variety of intracellular protein kinases and adaptor molecules, the main coordinator being integrin-linked kinase.[33] As shown in the picture to the right, cooperative integrin-RTK signalling determines the timing of cellular survival, apoptosis, proliferation, and differentiation.

Important differences exist between integrin-signalling in circulating blood cells and non-circulating cells such as epithelial cells; integrins of circulating cells are normally inactive. For example, cell membrane integrins on circulating leukocytes are maintained in an inactive state to avoid epithelial cell attachment; they are activated only in response to stimuli such as those received at the site of an inflammatory response. In a similar manner, integrins at the cell membrane of circulating platelets are normally kept inactive to avoid thrombosis. Epithelial cells (which are non-circulating) normally have active integrins at their cell membrane, helping maintain their stable adhesion to underlying stromal cells that provide signals to maintain normal functioning.[34]

Toll gate

When activated, toll-like receptors (TLRs) take adapter molecules within the cytoplasm of cells in order to propagate a signal. Four adaptor molecules are known to be involved in signaling, which are Myd88, TIRAP, TRIF, and TRAM.[35][36][37] These adapters activate other intracellular molecules such as IRAK1, IRAK4, TBK1, and IKKi that amplify the signal, eventually leading to the induction or suppression of genes that cause certain responses. Thousands of genes are activated by TLR signaling, implying that this method constitutes an important gateway for gene modulation.

Ligand-gated ion channel

A ligand-gated ion channel, upon binding with a ligand, changes conformation to open a channel in the cell membrane through which ions relaying signals can pass. An example of this mechanism is found in the receiving cell of a neural synapse. The influx of ions that occurs in response to the opening of these channels induces action potentials, such as those that travel along nerves, by depolarizing the membrane of post-synaptic cells, resulting in the opening of voltage-gated ion channels.

An example of an ion allowed into the cell during a ligand-gated ion channel opening is Ca2+; it acts as a second messenger initiating signal transduction cascades and altering the physiology of the responding cell. This results in amplification of the synapse response between synaptic cells by remodelling the dendritic spines involved in the synapse.


Intracellular receptors, such as nuclear receptors and cytoplasmic receptors, are soluble proteins localized within their respective areas. The typical ligands for nuclear receptors are lipophilic hormones like the steroid hormones testosterone and progesterone and derivatives of vitamins A and D. To initiate signal transduction, the ligand must pass through the plasma membrane by passive diffusion. On binding with the receptor, the ligands pass through the nuclear membrane into the nucleus, enabling gene transcription and protein production.

Activated nuclear receptors attach to the DNA at receptor-specific hormone-responsive element (HRE) sequences, located in the promoter region of the genes activated by the hormone-receptor complex. Due to their enabling gene transcription, they are alternatively called inductors of gene expression. All hormones that act by regulation of gene expression have two consequences in their mechanism of action; their effects are produced after a characteristically long period of time and their effects persist for another long period of time, even after their concentration has been reduced to zero, due to a relatively slow turnover of most enzymes and proteins that would either deactivate or terminate ligand binding onto the receptor.

Signal transduction via these receptors involves little proteins, but the details of gene regulation by this method are not well-understood. Nucleic receptors have DNA-binding domains containing zinc fingers and a ligand-binding domain; the zinc fingers stabilize DNA binding by holding its phosphate backbone. DNA sequences that match the receptor are usually hexameric repeats of any kind; the sequences are similar but their orientation and distance differentiate them. The ligand-binding domain is additionally responsible for dimerization of nucleic receptors prior to binding and providing structures for transactivation used for communication with the translational apparatus.

Steroid receptors are a subclass of nuclear receptors located primarily within the cytosol; in the absence of steroids, they cling together in an aporeceptor complex containing chaperone or heatshock proteins (HSPs). The HSPs are necessary to activate the receptor by assisting the protein to fold in a way such that the signal sequence enabling its passage into the nucleus is accessible. Steroid receptors, on the other hand, may be repressive on gene expression when their transactivation domain is hidden; activity can be enhanced by phosphorylation of serine residues at their N-terminal as a result of another signal transduction pathway, a process called crosstalk.

Retinoic acid receptors are another subset of nuclear receptors. They can be activated by an endocrine-synthesized ligand that entered the cell by diffusion, a ligand synthesised from a precursor like retinol brought to the cell through the bloodstream or a completely intracellularly synthesised ligand like prostaglandin. These receptors are located in the nucleus and are not accompanied by HSPs; they repress their gene by binding to their specific DNA sequence when no ligand binds to them, and vice versa.

Certain intracellular receptors of the immune system are cytoplasmic receptors; recently identified NOD-like receptors (NLRs) reside in the cytoplasm of some eukaryotic cells and interact with ligands using a leucine-rich repeat (LRR) motif similar to TLRs. Some of these molecules like NOD2 interact with RIP2 kinase that activates NF-κB signaling, whereas others like NALP3 interact with inflammatory caspases and initiate processing of particular cytokines like interleukin-1β.[38][39]

Second messengers

First messengers are the intercellular chemical messengers (hormones, neurotransmitters, and paracrine/autocrine agents) that reach the cell from the extracellular fluid and bind to their specific receptors. Second messengers are the substances that enter the cytoplasm and act within the cell to trigger a response. In essence, second messengers serve as chemical relays from the plasma membrane to the cytoplasm, thus carrying out intracellular signal transduction.


The release of calcium ions from the calreticulin when inactive.

Calcium is used in many processes including muscle contraction, neurotransmitter release from nerve endings, and cell migration. The three main pathways that lead to its activation are GPCR pathways, RTK pathways, and gated ion channels; it regulates proteins either directly or by binding to an enzyme.


Lipophilic second messenger molecules are derived from lipids residing in cellular membranes; enzymes stimulated by activated receptors activate the lipids by modifying them. Examples include diacylglycerol and ceramide, the former required for the activation of protein kinase C.

Nitric oxide

Nitric oxide (NO) acts as a second messenger because it is a free radical that can diffuse through the plasma membrane and affect nearby cells. It is synthesised from arginine and oxygen by the NO synthase and works through activation of soluble guanylyl cyclase, which when activated produces another second messenger, cGMP. NO can also act through covalent modification of proteins or their metal co-factors; some have a redox mechanism and are reversible. It is toxic in high concentrations and causes damage during stroke, but is the cause of many other functions like relaxation of blood vessels, apoptosis, and penile erections.

Redox signaling

In addition to nitric oxide, other electronically activated species are also signal-transducing agents in a process called semiconductive biological macromolecules.[40]

Cellular responses

Gene activations[41] and metabolism alterations[42] are examples of cellular responses to extracellular stimulation that require signal transduction. Gene activation leads to further cellular effects, since the products of responding genes include instigators of activation; transcription factors produced as a result of a signal transduction cascade can activate even more genes. Hence, an initial stimulus can trigger the expression of a large number of genes, leading to physiological events like the increased uptake of glucose from the blood stream[42] and the migration of neutrophils to sites of infection. The set of genes and their activation order to certain stimuli is referred to as a genetic program.[43]

Mammalian cells require stimulation for cell division and survival; in the absence of growth factor, apoptosis ensues. Such requirements for extracellular stimulation are necessary for controlling cell behavior in unicellular and multicellular organisms; signal transduction pathways are perceived to be so central to biological processes that a large number of diseases are attributed to their disregulation. Three basic signals determine cellular growth:

  • Stimulatory (growth factors)
    • Transcription dependent response
      For example steroids act directly as transcription factor (gives slow response, as transcription factor must bind DNA, which needs to be transcribed. Produced mRNA needs to be translated, and the produced protein/peptide can undergo Posttranslational_modification (PMT))
    • Transcription independent response
      For example epidermal growth factor (EGF) binds the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which causes dimerization and autophosphorylation of the EGFR, which in turn activates the intracellular signaling pathway .[44]
  • Inhibitory (cell-cell contact)
  • Permissive (cell-matrix interactions)

The combination of these signals are integrated in an altered cytoplasmic machinery which leads to altered cell behaviour.

Major pathways

Following are some major signaling pathways, demonstrating how ligands binding to their receptors can affect second messengers and eventually result in altered cellular responses.

See also


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