In biology, cell signaling (cell signalling in British English) or cell communication is the ability of a cell to receive, process, and transmit signals with its environment and with itself. Cell signaling is a fundamental property of all cellular life in prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Signals that originate from outside a cell (or extracellular signals) can be physical agents like mechanical pressure, voltage, temperature, light, or chemical signals (e.g., small molecules, peptides, or gas). Chemical signals can be hydrophobic or hydrophilic. Cell signaling can occur over short or long distances, and as a result can be classified as autocrine, juxtacrine, intracrine, paracrine, or endocrine. Signaling molecules can be synthesized from various biosynthetic pathways and released through passive or active transports, or even from cell damage.
Receptors play a key role in cell signaling as they are able to detect chemical signals or physical stimuli. Receptors are generally proteins located on the cell surface or within the interior of the cell such as the cytoplasm, organelles, and nucleus. Cell surface receptors usually bind with extracellular signals (or ligands), which causes a conformational change in the receptor that leads it to initiate enzymic activity, or to open or close ion channel activity. Some receptors do not contain enzymatic or channel-like domains but are instead linked to enzymes or transporters. Other receptors like nuclear receptors have a different mechanism such as changing their DNA binding properties and cellular localization to the nucleus.
Signal transduction begins with the transformation (or transduction) of a signal into a chemical one, which can directly activate an ion channel (ligand-gated ion channel) or initiate a second messenger system cascade that propagates the signal through the cell. Second messenger systems can amplify a signal, in which activation of a few receptors results in multiple secondary messengers being activated, thereby amplifying the initial signal (the first messenger). The downstream effects of these signaling pathways may include additional enzymatic activities such as proteolytic cleavage, phosphorylation, methylation, and ubiquitinylation.
Each cell is programmed to respond to specific extracellular signal molecules, and is the basis of development, tissue repair, immunity, and homeostasis. Errors in signaling interactions may cause diseases such as cancer, autoimmunity, and diabetes.