Methods of Intracellular Signaling

The induction of a signaling pathway depends on the modification of a cellular component by an enzyme. There are numerous enzymatic modifications that can occur, and they are recognized in turn by the next component downstream. The following are some of the more common events in intracellular signaling.

Phosphorylation

Molecular structures of phosphoserine, phosphothreonine and phosphotyrosine are shown. In each molecule, a phosphate is attached to an oxygen on the amino acid.

Figure 1. In protein phosphorylation, a phosphate group (PO4−3) is added to residues of the amino acids serine, threonine, and tyrosine.

One of the most common chemical modifications that occurs in signaling pathways is the addition of a phosphate group (PO4–3) to a molecule such as a protein in a process called phosphorylation. The phosphate can be added to a nucleotide such as GMP to form GDP or GTP. Phosphates are also often added to serine, threonine, and tyrosine residues of proteins, where they replace the hydroxyl group of the amino acid (Figure 1). The transfer of the phosphate is catalyzed by an enzyme called a kinase. Various kinases are named for the substrate they phosphorylate. Phosphorylation of serine and threonine residues often activates enzymes. Phosphorylation of tyrosine residues can either affect the activity of an enzyme or create a binding site that interacts with downstream components in the signaling cascade. Phosphorylation may activate or inactivate enzymes, and the reversal of phosphorylation, dephosphorylation by a phosphatase, will reverse the effect.

Second Messengers

Second messengers are small molecules that propagate a signal after it has been initiated by the binding of the signaling molecule to the receptor. These molecules help to spread a signal through the cytoplasm by altering the behavior of certain cellular proteins.

Calcium ion is a widely used second messenger. The free concentration of calcium ions (Ca2+) within a cell is very low because ion pumps in the plasma membrane continuously use adenosine-5′-triphosphate (ATP) to remove it. For signaling purposes, Ca2+ is stored in cytoplasmic vesicles, such as the endoplasmic reticulum, or accessed from outside the cell. When signaling occurs, ligand-gated calcium ion channels allow the higher levels of Ca2+ that are present outside the cell (or in intracellular storage compartments) to flow into the cytoplasm, which raises the concentration of cytoplasmic Ca2+. The response to the increase in Ca2+ varies, depending on the cell type involved. For example, in the β-cells of the pancreas, Ca2+ signaling leads to the release of insulin, and in muscle cells, an increase in Ca2+ leads to muscle contractions.

Another second messenger utilized in many different cell types is cyclic AMP (cAMP). Cyclic AMP is synthesized by the enzyme adenylyl cyclase from ATP (Figure 2). The main role of cAMP in cells is to bind to and activate an enzyme called cAMP-dependent kinase (A-kinase). A-kinase regulates many vital metabolic pathways: It phosphorylates serine and threonine residues of its target proteins, activating them in the process. A-kinase is found in many different types of cells, and the target proteins in each kind of cell are different. Differences give rise to the variation of the responses to cAMP in different cells.

Cyclic AMP is made from ATP by the enzyme adenylyl cyclase. In the process, a pyrophosphate molecule composed of two phosphate residues is released. Cyclic AMP gets its name because the phosphate group is attached to the ribose ring in two places, forming a circle.

Figure 2. This diagram shows the mechanism for the formation of cyclic AMP (cAMP). cAMP serves as a second messenger to activate or inactivate proteins within the cell. Termination of the signal occurs when an enzyme called phosphodiesterase converts cAMP into AMP.

Present in small concentrations in the plasma membrane, inositol phospholipids are lipids that can also be converted into second messengers. Because these molecules are membrane components, they are located near membrane-bound receptors and can easily interact with them. Phosphatidylinositol (PI) is the main phospholipid that plays a role in cellular signaling. Enzymes known as kinases phosphorylate PI to form PI-phosphate (PIP) and PI-bisphosphate (PIP2).

The enzyme phospholipase C cleaves PIP2 to form diacylglycerol (DAG) and inositol triphosphate (IP3) (Figure 3). These products of the cleavage of PIP2 serve as second messengers. Diacylglycerol (DAG) remains in the plasma membrane and activates protein kinase C (PKC), which then phosphorylates serine and threonine residues in its target proteins. IP3 diffuses into the cytoplasm and binds to ligand-gated calcium channels in the endoplasmic reticulum to release Ca2+ that continues the signal cascade.

The molecular structures of PIP_2, DAG, and IP_3 are shown. PIP_2 is a phospholipid that is cleaved by phospholipase C to form DAG, which has a long hydrophobic tail, and IP_3, a ring structure with three phosphates attached.

Figure 3. The enzyme phospholipase C breaks down PIP2 into IP3 and DAG, both of which serve as second messengers.

In Summary: Methods of Intracellular Signaling

Ligand binding to the receptor allows for signal transduction through the cell. The chain of events that conveys the signal through the cell is called a signaling pathway or cascade. Signaling pathways are often very complex because of the interplay between different proteins. A major component of cell signaling cascades is the phosphorylation of molecules by enzymes known as kinases. Phosphorylation adds a phosphate group to serine, threonine, and tyrosine residues in a protein, changing their shapes, and activating or inactivating the protein. Small molecules like nucleotides can also be phosphorylated. Second messengers are small, non-protein molecules that are used to transmit a signal within a cell. Some examples of second messengers are calcium ions (Ca2+), cyclic AMP (cAMP), diacylglycerol (DAG), and inositol triphosphate (IP3).