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Cell Signaling Explained

by | Aug 29, 2023 | Biotech for Non-Scientist


Welcome to the forefront of cell signaling research in 2023! The scientific community is buzzing with groundbreaking advancements, especially in the realm of intracellular signal transduction pathways. These complex cellular conversations are more than just biological small talk; they hold the key to understanding and treating a range of conditions from cancer to diabetes. Recent discoveries are not only deepening our grasp of cellular biology but are also opening new avenues for targeted therapies that could revolutionize healthcare. So whether you’re a seasoned bio-enthusiast or new to the field, stay tuned as we delve into the intricate world of cell signaling—a topic that’s shaping the future of medicine as we know it.


In multicellular organisms, cells must communicate with each other. Since cells don’t have mouths, ears, or access to email, they must rely on chemical messengers. A chemical message – for example, a hormone – is released by one cell and received by a second cell – the target cell. The target cell receives the message through proteins inserted into its membrane known as receptors – proteins that control the passage of molecules and the flow of information across the membrane. When the signaling protein binds its receptor, the receptor changes shape and transduces (converts from one form to another) the chemical message across the membrane to the cell interior. This process of cellular communication is known as signal transduction. The most common end result of signal transduction, and a key step in cell decision-making, is the switching on or off protein production – more commonly called gene expression.

Another class of membrane proteins that aid in cellular communication is channel proteins. These proteins act as molecular gates that allow the passage of small molecules and ions, for example, glucose and sodium, across the membrane in response to a stimulus, such as an electrical current in the case of ions or insulin signaling in the case of glucose. In neurons, ion transport between cells serves as a principal means of signal transduction. The influx of calcium ions (Ca++) into neurons releases neurotransmitters – chemical messengers specific to the nervous system. Different types of neurotransmitters regulate a variety of brain functions, including muscular activity, memory and learning, and mood regulation.

The regulation of blood sugar levels by the protein hormone insulin is an example of cellular communication. After you eat, beta cells in your pancreas sense increased blood glucose and respond by releasing insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin molecules attach to specific insulin receptors on muscle cells and, in doing so, deliver a signal to the inside of the muscle cell to send glucose channels to the membrane, resulting in glucose uptake. In this way, blood glucose levels are kept constant.


Some cells send signals while others receive signals, but most cells do both. The signals are chemical hormones, such as adrenaline, or proteins, such as insulin. They are produced within specialized cells (the signaling cell) and released to find their target cells. The signal is often called a ligand. In some cases, the signaling and target cells may be the same. The target cell may be in direct contact with the signaling cell, or it may be in a different part of the body and receive a signal that has been transported through the bloodstream.

Alternatively, the signal and target may be in close proximity, and the signal can be transported by diffusion through the intracellular space. After receiving a signal, the target cell responds in a manner that is determined by the nature of the signal received.


Growth factors are proteins that signal a cell to multiply. For instance, epidermal growth factor (EGF) stimulates the proliferation of skin cells during wound repair. Cells are constantly exposed to many different growth factors and the particular ones they respond to depend on their cell surface receptors. Skin cells, as well as cells covering the gut, lung, and breast, have or express receptors for an epidermal growth factor (EGF), while nerve cells express receptors for a nerve growth factor (NGF).

After receiving the initial growth factor signal, the enzymatic activity of the internal portion of the growth factor receptor is activated. The particular type of activity switched on is protein kinase activity – or the ability to transfer a phosphate group from one molecule to another. These types of receptors are sometimes referred to as receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) because they selectively transfer phosphate groups to the amino acid tyrosine on the recipient protein. This transfer, in turn, causes a slight shape change in the protein that received the phosphate group, typically leading to the activation of that protein’s own kinase activity. This newly activated protein kinase then goes on to activate yet another kinase protein, and so on, in what is referred to as a signal transduction cascade. The last element in this cascade to be phosphorylated is typically a protein called a transcription factor. Once phosphorylated, the transcription factor enters the nucleus, where it binds to the DNA at a particular location, activating the expression of a specific gene.

Defects in the growth factor signaling process are associated with different types of cancer. A major challenge in oncology lies in understanding the complex signaling pathways that trigger cell division and determining what has gone wrong in each type of cancer. Once these signaling pathways are understood, developing targeted therapies for a particular cancer is possible.


In summary, the field of cell signaling has witnessed significant advancements, particularly in the year 2023. The complexities of intracellular signal transduction pathways are not merely academic exercises; they have profound implications for understanding and treating a myriad of diseases, including cancer and diabetes. The cellular mechanisms that regulate everything from hormonal responses to blood sugar levels are integral to human physiology. The recent breakthroughs in this domain are not only enhancing our understanding of cellular biology but are also paving the way for innovative, targeted therapies. As we continue to explore this intricate landscape, it becomes increasingly evident that effective medical interventions are deeply rooted in the fundamental language of cellular communication.


1. What is cell signaling?

Cell signaling is the process by which cells communicate with each other using chemical messengers like hormones and proteins. This communication is essential for regulating various cellular functions and responses.

2. How do cells communicate?

Cells use chemical messengers such as hormones and proteins to send and receive signals. These messengers bind to specific receptors on the target cell, initiating a cascade of events inside the cell, commonly known as signal transduction.

3. What are growth factors?

Growth factors are proteins that signal a cell to multiply. For example, epidermal growth factor (EGF) stimulates skin cell proliferation during wound repair.

4. How is cell signaling related to diseases like cancer?

Defects in cell signaling pathways can lead to uncontrolled cell growth and division, which is a hallmark of cancer. Understanding these pathways can help in developing targeted therapies for specific types of cancer.

5. What are the latest advancements in cell signaling research in 2023?

The scientific community is buzzing with new discoveries, especially in the realm of intracellular signal transduction pathways. These advancements are opening new avenues for targeted therapies in conditions like cancer and diabetes.

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Author: Emily Burke, PhD
Editor: Sarah Van Tiems, MS
Scientific Review: Tahir Hayat, MS


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