Cell signaling pathways

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Cell signaling pathways


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High Yield Notes

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Cell signaling pathways

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USMLE® Step 1 style questions USMLE

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A study is conducted to evaluate the various effects of receptors on cardiac cells. According to this study,  if receptor X in the atria was activated, it led to inhibition of secondary messengers production including cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), leading to decreased heart rate and contractility. Which of the following receptors is receptor X?  

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To make a multicellular organism, cells must be able to communicate with one another, and to do it cells often send out tiny chemical signals that act on the receptors on other cells.

Signals can be classified according to the distance between the signaling cell and the target cell.

Autocrine signals are produced by a cell and go to its own receptors, so the cell sends a signal to itself.

Paracrine signals are produced by a cell and go to target cells that are nearby.

And endocrine signals are produced by a cell and go to target cells that are further away.

Examples of these include hormones that are secreted into the bloodstream, as well as cytokines that can be released at the site of injury and act on the brain to cause a fever.

Signaling molecules or ligands can be hydrophobic, meaning that they tend to repel water, or hydrophilic, meaning that they tend to stay in water.

Hydrophobic signalling molecules can’t freely float in the extracellular space, so they’re brought to the target cells by carrier proteins.

Hydrophobic molecules can diffuse across the cell membrane and bind to receptor proteins inside the target cell - either in the cytoplasm or in the nucleus.

Most signal molecules are hydrophilic, so they can freely float in the extracellular space to reach the target cells, but are then unable to cross the cell membrane.

So to pass on the signal, hydrophilic molecules bind to receptors on the cell surface.

These receptors are transmembrane proteins, with an extracellular end that binds to the ligand, and an intracellular end that triggers a signaling pathway inside the cell.

We can think of the cell signaling pathway in three stages.

The first stage is reception, which is when the target cell’s receptor binds to a ligand. It’s like a key fitting into a lock.

Then there’s transduction, which means that the receptor protein changes in some way and that activates intracellular molecules - the second messengers.

The third stage is the cell’s response to the signal.

Zooming into these transmembrane receptors, there are three major classes: G protein coupled receptors, enzyme-coupled receptors, and ion channel receptors.

G-protein coupled receptors are seven pass transmembrane receptors.

These are really long proteins that have one end that sits outside the cell and binds the ligand, then the snake-like protein dips in and out of the cell membrane seven times, and finally ends on the inside of the cell.

The end of the G-protein coupled receptor that’s within the cell activates intracellular proteins called guanine nucleotide-binding proteins or G proteins.


Cell signaling pathways are how cells communicate with each other to carry out their functions. There are many different types of cell signaling pathways, but they all share some common features. Signals are classified into three main groups based on the distance they travel. These include autocrine signals, which target the same cell as the origin; paracrine signals which target nearby cells; and endocrine signals which target distant cells. Cell signaling pathways rely on proteins called receptors located on the cells' surface. We have three major transmembrane receptor classes: G protein-coupled receptors, enzyme-coupled receptors, and ion channel receptors. When a molecule that is part of a cell signal binds to a receptor, it triggers a series of reactions inside the cell that ultimately lead to the desired outcome.


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