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Biology LibreTexts

4.6: Connections between Cells and Cellular Activities

Skills to Develop

  • Describe the extracellular matrix
  • List examples of the ways that plant cells and animal cells communicate with adjacent cells
  • Summarize the roles of tight junctions, desmosomes, gap junctions, and plasmodesmata

You already know that a group of similar cells working together is called a tissue. As you might expect, if cells are to work together, they must communicate with each other, just as you need to communicate with others if you work on a group project. Let’s take a look at how cells communicate with each other.

Extracellular Matrix of Animal Cells

Most animal cells release materials into the extracellular space. The primary components of these materials are proteins, and the most abundant protein is collagen. Collagen fibers are interwoven with carbohydrate-containing protein molecules called proteoglycans. Collectively, these materials are called the extracellular matrix (Figure 4.6.1). Not only does the extracellular matrix hold the cells together to form a tissue, but it also allows the cells within the tissue to communicate with each other. How can this happen?

Figure 4.6.1: The extracellular matrix consists of a network of proteins and carbohydrates.

Cells have protein receptors on the extracellular surfaces of their plasma membranes. When a molecule within the matrix binds to the receptor, it changes the molecular structure of the receptor. The receptor, in turn, changes the conformation of the microfilaments positioned just inside the plasma membrane. These conformational changes induce chemical signals inside the cell that reach the nucleus and turn “on” or “off” the transcription of specific sections of DNA, which affects the production of associated proteins, thus changing the activities within the cell.

Blood clotting provides an example of the role of the extracellular matrix in cell communication. When the cells lining a blood vessel are damaged, they display a protein receptor called tissue factor. When tissue factor binds with another factor in the extracellular matrix, it causes platelets to adhere to the wall of the damaged blood vessel, stimulates the adjacent smooth muscle cells in the blood vessel to contract (thus constricting the blood vessel), and initiates a series of steps that stimulate the platelets to produce clotting factors.

Intercellular Junctions

Cells can also communicate with each other via direct contact, referred to as intercellular junctions. There are some differences in the ways that plant and animal cells do this. Plasmodesmata are junctions between plant cells, whereas animal cell contacts include tight junctions, gap junctions, and desmosomes.


In general, long stretches of the plasma membranes of neighboring plant cells cannot touch one another because they are separated by the cell wall that surrounds each cell (Figure 2.1.d.1b). How then, can a plant transfer water and other soil nutrients from its roots, through its stems, and to its leaves? Such transport uses the vascular tissues (xylem and phloem) primarily. There also exist structural modifications called plasmodesmata (singular = plasmodesma), numerous channels that pass between cell walls of adjacent plant cells, connect their cytoplasm, and enable materials to be transported from cell to cell, and thus throughout the plant (Figure 4.6.2).

Figure 4.6.2: A plasmodesma is a channel between the cell walls of two adjacent plant cells. Plasmodesmata allow materials to pass from the cytoplasm of one plant cell to the cytoplasm of an adjacent cell.

Tight Junctions

A tight junction is a watertight seal between two adjacent animal cells (Figure 4.6.3). The cells are held tightly against each other by proteins (predominantly two proteins called claudins and occludins).

Figure 4.6.3: Tight junctions form watertight connections between adjacent animal cells. Proteins create tight junction adherence. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

This tight adherence prevents materials from leaking between the cells; tight junctions are typically found in epithelial tissues that line internal organs and cavities, and comprise most of the skin. For example, the tight junctions of the epithelial cells lining your urinary bladder prevent urine from leaking out into the extracellular space.


Also found only in animal cells are desmosomes, which act like spot welds between adjacent epithelial cells (Figure 4.6.4). Short proteins called cadherins in the plasma membrane connect to intermediate filaments to create desmosomes. The cadherins join two adjacent cells together and maintain the cells in a sheet-like formation in organs and tissues that stretch, like the skin, heart, and muscles.

Figure 4.6.4: A desmosome forms a very strong spot weld between cells. It is created by the linkage of cadherins and intermediate filaments. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

Gap Junctions

Gap junctions in animal cells are like plasmodesmata in plant cells in that they are channels between adjacent cells that allow for the transport of ions, nutrients, and other substances that enable cells to communicate (Figure 4.6.5). Structurally, however, gap junctions and plasmodesmata differ.

Figure 4.6.5: A gap junction is a protein-lined pore that allows water and small molecules to pass between adjacent animal cells. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

Gap junctions develop when a set of six proteins (called connexins) in the plasma membrane arrange themselves in an elongated donut-like configuration called a connexon. When the pores (“doughnut holes”) of connexons in adjacent animal cells align, a channel between the two cells forms. Gap junctions are particularly important in cardiac muscle: The electrical signal for the muscle to contract is passed efficiently through gap junctions, allowing the heart muscle cells to contract in tandem.

Link to Learning

To conduct a virtual microscopy lab and review the parts of a cell, work through the steps of this interactive assignment.


Animal cells communicate via their extracellular matrices and are connected to each other via tight junctions, desmosomes, and gap junctions. Plant cells are connected and communicate with each other via plasmodesmata.

When protein receptors on the surface of the plasma membrane of an animal cell bind to a substance in the extracellular matrix, a chain of reactions begins that changes activities taking place within the cell. Plasmodesmata are channels between adjacent plant cells, while gap junctions are channels between adjacent animal cells. However, their structures are quite different. A tight junction is a watertight seal between two adjacent cells, while a desmosome acts like a spot weld.

Review Questions

Which of the following are found only in plant cells?

  1. gap junctions
  2. desmosomes
  3. plasmodesmata
  4. tight junctions


The key components of desmosomes are cadherins and __________.

  1. actin
  2. microfilaments
  3. intermediate filaments
  4. microtubules


Free Response

How does the structure of a plasmodesma differ from that of a gap junction?

They differ because plant cell walls are rigid. Plasmodesmata, which a plant cell needs for transportation and communication, are able to allow movement of really large molecules. Gap junctions are necessary in animal cells for transportation and communication.

Explain how the extracellular matrix functions.

The extracellular matrix functions in support and attachment for animal tissues. It also functions in the healing and growth of the tissue.


linkages between adjacent epithelial cells that form when cadherins in the plasma membrane attach to intermediate filaments
extracellular matrix
material (primarily collagen, glycoproteins, and proteoglycans) secreted from animal cells that provides mechanical protection and anchoring for the cells in the tissue
gap junction
channel between two adjacent animal cells that allows ions, nutrients, and low molecular weight substances to pass between cells, enabling the cells to communicate
(plural = plasmodesmata) channel that passes between the cell walls of adjacent plant cells, connects their cytoplasm, and allows materials to be transported from cell to cell
tight junction
firm seal between two adjacent animal cells created by protein adherence


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