All cells receive and respond to signals from their environment. Even the simplest bacteria sense and swim toward high concentrations of nutrients, such as glucose or amino acids. Many bacteria and unicellular eukaryotes also respond to signaling molecules secreted by other cells, allowing for cell-cell communication. Mating between yeast cells, for example, is signaled by peptides that are secreted by one cell and bind to receptors on the surface of another. It is in multicellular organisms, however, that cell-cell communication reaches its highest level of sophistication. Whereas the cells of prokaryotes and unicellular eukaryotes are largely autonomous, the behavior of each individual cell in multicellular plants and animals must be carefully regulated to meet the needs of the organism as a whole. This is accomplished by a variety of signaling molecules that are secreted or expressed on the surface of one cell and bind to receptors expressed by other cells, thereby integrating and coordinating the functions of the many individual cells that make up organisms as complex as human beings.
The binding of most signaling molecules to their receptors initiates a series of intracellular reactions that regulate virtually all aspects of cell behavior, including metabolism, movement, proliferation, survival, and differentiation. Understanding the molecular components of these intracellular signaling pathways and how they are regulated has thus become a major area of research in contemporary cell biology. Interest in this area is further heightened by the fact that many cancers arise as a result of a breakdown in the signaling pathways that control normal cell proliferation and survival. In fact, many of our current insights into cell signaling mechanisms have come from the study of cancer cells-a striking example of the fruitful interplay between medicine and basic research in cell and molecular biology.
Cells use a large and complex array of different signaling pathways. A select few of these pathways are discussed in this chapter, with the goal of introducing the principles of cell signaling.