Biology » Cell Communication » Signaling Molecules and Cellular Receptors

Summarizing Signaling Molecules and Cellular Receptors


Cells communicate by both inter- and intracellular signaling. Signaling cells secrete ligands that bind to target cells and initiate a chain of events within the target cell. The four categories of signaling in multicellular organisms are paracrine signaling, endocrine signaling, autocrine signaling, and direct signaling across gap junctions.

Paracrine signaling takes place over short distances. Endocrine signals are carried long distances through the bloodstream by hormones, and autocrine signals are received by the same cell that sent the signal or other nearby cells of the same kind. Gap junctions allow small molecules, including signaling molecules, to flow between neighboring cells.

Internal receptors are found in the cell cytoplasm. Here, they bind ligand molecules that cross the plasma membrane; these receptor-ligand complexes move to the nucleus and interact directly with cellular DNA. Cell-surface receptors transmit a signal from outside the cell to the cytoplasm.

Ion channel-linked receptors, when bound to their ligands, form a pore through the plasma membrane through which certain ions can pass. G-protein-linked receptors interact with a G-protein on the cytoplasmic side of the plasma membrane, promoting the exchange of bound GDP for GTP and interacting with other enzymes or ion channels to transmit a signal. Enzyme-linked receptors transmit a signal from outside the cell to an intracellular domain of a membrane-bound enzyme.

Ligand binding causes activation of the enzyme. Small hydrophobic ligands (like steroids) are able to penetrate the plasma membrane and bind to internal receptors. Water-soluble hydrophilic ligands are unable to pass through the membrane; instead, they bind to cell-surface receptors, which transmit the signal to the inside of the cell.


autocrine signal

signal that is sent and received by the same or similar nearby cells

cell-surface receptor

cell-surface protein that transmits a signal from the exterior of the cell to the interior, even though the ligand does not enter the cell

chemical synapse

small space between axon terminals and dendrites of nerve cells where neurotransmitters function

endocrine cell

cell that releases ligands involved in endocrine signaling (hormones)

endocrine signal

long-distance signal that is delivered by ligands (hormones) traveling through an organisms circulatory system from the signaling cell to the target cell

enzyme-linked receptor

cell-surface receptor with intracellular domains that are associated with membrane-bound enzymes

extracellular domain

region of a cell-surface receptor that is located on the cell surface

G-protein-linked receptor

cell-surface receptor that activates membrane-bound G-proteins to transmit a signal from the receptor to nearby membrane components

intercellular signaling

communication between cells

internal receptor

(also, intracellular receptor) receptor protein that is located in the cytosol of a cell and binds to ligands that pass through the plasma membrane

intracellular mediator

(also, second messenger) small molecule that transmits signals within a cell

intracellular signaling

communication within cells

ion channel-linked receptor

cell-surface receptor that forms a plasma membrane channel, which opens when a ligand binds to the extracellular domain (ligand-gated channels)


molecule produced by a signaling cell that binds with a specific receptor, delivering a signal in the process


chemical ligand that carries a signal from one nerve cell to the next

paracrine signal

signal between nearby cells that is delivered by ligands traveling in the liquid medium in the space between the cells


protein in or on a target cell that bind to ligands

signaling cell

cell that releases signal molecules that allow communication with another cell

synaptic signal

chemical signal (neurotransmitter) that travels between nerve cells

target cell

cell that has a receptor for a signal or ligand from a signaling cell

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