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Biology LibreTexts

9.2A: Binding Initiates a Signaling Pathway

  • Page ID
  • Ligand binding to cell-surface receptors activates the receptor’s intracellular components setting off a signaling pathway or cascade.


    Recognize the relationship between a ligand’s structure and its mechanism of action.


    Key Points

    • Signaling pathways can be complicated since most cellular proteins can affect different downstream events.
    • Cell -surface receptors are integral in signaling pathways.
    • Ion channel -linked receptors open a channel once a ligand binds allowing specific ions to pass through the membrane.
    • G-protein-linked receptors activate a membrane protein called a G-protein once a ligand binds.
    • Enzyme -linked receptors are cell-surface receptors with intracellular domains.

    Key Terms

    • ligand: an ion, molecule, or functional group that binds to another chemical entity to form a larger complex
    • receptor: a protein on a cell wall that binds with specific molecules so that they can be absorbed into the cell in order to control certain functions

    Cell-surface receptors, also known as transmembrane receptors, are membrane-anchored (integral) proteins that bind to external ligand molecules. This type of receptor spans the plasma membrane and performs signal transduction in which an extracellular signal is converted into an intracellular signal. Ligands that interact with cell-surface receptors do not have to enter the cell that they affect. Cell-surface receptors are also called cell-specific proteins or markers because they are specific to individual cell types. Each cell-surface receptor has three main components: an external ligand-binding domain, a hydrophobic membrane-spanning region, and an intracellular domain inside the cell. The ligand-binding domain is also called the extracellular domain. The size and extent of each of these domains vary widely, depending on the type of receptor. Cell-surface receptors are involved in most of the signaling in multicellular organisms.

    There are three general categories of cell-surface receptors: ion channel-linked receptors, G-protein-linked receptors, and enzyme-linked receptors.

    1. Ion channel-linked receptors bind a ligand and open a channel through the membrane that allows specific ions to pass through. To form a channel, this type of cell-surface receptor has an extensive membrane-spanning region. When a ligand binds to the extracellular region of the channel, there is a conformational change in the protein’s structure that allows ions such as sodium, calcium, magnesium, and hydrogen to pass through.
    2. G-protein-linked receptors bind a ligand and activate a membrane protein called a G-protein. The activated G-protein then interacts with either an ion channel or an enzyme in the membrane. All G-protein-linked receptors have seven transmembrane domains, but each receptor has its own specific extracellular domain and G-protein-binding site.
    3. Enzyme-linked receptors are cell-surface receptors with intracellular domains that are associated with an enzyme. In some cases, the intracellular domain of the receptor itself is an enzyme. Other enzyme-linked receptors have a small intracellular domain that interacts directly with an enzyme. When a ligand binds to the extracellular domain, a signal is transferred through the membrane, activating the enzyme. Activation of the enzyme sets off a chain of events within the cell that eventually leads to a response.

    After the ligand binds to the cell-surface receptor, the activation of the receptor’s intracellular components sets off a chain of events that is called a signaling pathway or a signaling cascade. In a signaling pathway, second messengers, enzymes, and activated proteins interact with specific proteins, which are in turn activated in a chain reaction that eventually leads to a change in the cell’s environment. The events in the cascade occur in a series, much like a current flows in a river. Interactions that occur before a certain point are defined as upstream events; events after that point are called downstream events.


    Ligand Initiated Signaling Pathway: An example of ligand initiated signaling pathways is when epidermal growth factor (EGF) binds to its receptor. A complex cascade of downstream events causes the cell to grow and divide.

    Signaling pathways can get very complicated very quickly because most cellular proteins can affect different downstream events, depending on the conditions within the cell. A single pathway can branch off toward different endpoints based on the interplay between two or more signaling pathways. The same ligands are often used to initiate different signals in different cell types. This variation in response is due to differences in protein expression in different cell types. Another complicating element is signal integration of the pathways in which signals from two or more different cell-surface receptors merge to activate the same response in the cell. This process can ensure that multiple external requirements are met before a cell commits to a specific response.

    The effects of extracellular signals can also be amplified by enzymatic cascades. At the initiation of the signal, a single ligand binds to a single receptor. However, activation of a receptor-linked enzyme can activate many copies of a component of the signaling cascade, which amplifies the signal.