Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will explore the following questions:

  • How does the binding of a ligand initiate signal transduction throughout a cell?
  • What is the role of second messengers in signal transduction?

Connection for AP® Courses

Connection for AP® Courses

During signal transduction, a series of relay proteins inside the cytoplasm of the target cell activate target proteins, resulting in a cellular response. These cascades are complex because of the interplay between proteins. A significant contributor to cell signaling cascades is the phosphorylation of molecules by enzymes known as kinases. Substrate-level phosphorylation was studied when you learned about glycolysis. By adding a phosphate group, phosphorylation changes the shapes of proteins. This change in shape activates or inactivates them. Second messengers, e.g., cAMP and Ca2+, are often used to transmit signals within a cell.

Information presented and the examples highlighted in the section support concepts and Learning Objectives outlined in Big Idea 3 of the AP® Biology Curriculum Framework. The Learning Objectives listed in the Curriculum Framework provide a transparent foundation for the AP® Biology course, an inquiry-based laboratory experience, instructional activities, and AP® Exam questions. A Learning Objective merges required content with one or more of the seven Science Practices.

Big Idea 3 Living systems store, retrieve, transmit, and respond to information essential to life processes.
Enduring Understanding 3.D Cells communicate by generating, transmitting, and receiving chemical signals.
Essential Knowledge 3.D.3 Signal transduction pathways link signal reception with a cellular response.
Science Practice 1.5 The student can re-express key elements of natural phenomena across multiple representations in the domain.
Learning Objective 3.36 The student is able to describe a model that expresses the key elements of signal transduction pathways by which a signal is converted in to a cellular response.

The Science Practices Assessment Ancillary contains additional test questions for this section that will help you prepare for the AP exam. These questions address the following standards:

  • [APLO 3.33]
  • [APLO 3.4]
  • [APLO 4.22]
  • [APLO 2.5]
  • [APLO 3.32]
  • [APLO 3.38]

Once a ligand binds to a receptor, the signal is transmitted through the membrane and into the cytoplasm. Continuation of a signal in this manner is called signal transduction. Signal transduction only occurs with cell-surface receptors because internal receptors are able to interact directly with DNA in the nucleus to initiate protein synthesis.

When a ligand binds to its receptor, conformational changes occur that affect the receptor’s intracellular domain. Conformational changes of the extracellular domain upon ligand binding can propagate through the membrane region of the receptor and lead to activation of the intracellular domain or its associated proteins. In some cases, binding of the ligand causes dimerization of the receptor, which means that two receptors bind to each other to form a stable complex called a dimer. A dimer is a chemical compound formed when two molecules (often identical) join together. The binding of the receptors in this manner enables their intracellular domains to come into close contact and activate each other.

Binding Initiates a Signaling Pathway

Binding Initiates a Signaling Pathway

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 (Figure 9.10). 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, and events after that point are called downstream events.

Visual Connection

This illustration shows the epidermal growth factor receptor, which is embedded in the plasma membrane. Upon binding of a signaling molecule to the receptor’s extracellular domain, the receptor dimerizes, and intracellular residues are phosphorylated. Phosphorylation of the receptor triggers the phosphorylation of a protein called MEK by RAF. MEK, in turn, phosphorylates ERK. ERK stimulates protein translation in the cytoplasm, and transcription in the nucleus. Activation of ERK stimulates cell prolifer
Figure 9.10 The epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor (EGFR) is a receptor tyrosine kinase involved in the regulation of cell growth, wound healing, and tissue repair. When EGF binds to the EGFR, a cascade of downstream events causes the cell to grow and divide. If EGFR is activated at inappropriate times, uncontrolled cell growth may occur.
In certain cancers, the GTPase activity of the RAS G-protein is inhibited. This means that the RAS protein can no longer hydrolyze GTP into GDP. What effect would this have on downstream cellular events?
  1. Cells will not proliferate.
  2. ERK is permanently inactivated.
  3. Regulated cell division.
  4. Uncontrolled cell proliferation.

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, and 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.

Methods of Intracellular Signaling

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.

Link to Learning

QR Code representing a URL

Observe an animation of cell signaling at this site.

Hemophilia is a rare condition in which the blood lacks sufficient clotting factors. These factors are required for the platelets to bind together and form clots. How does this interfere with the cell signals during wound healing?
  1. delay and prevention of the cell signal required for wound healing
  2. activate the cell signal required for wound healing
  3. activate and enhance the cell signals for wound healing
  4. cell signal will remain unaffected


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 9.11). 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.

Molecular structures of phosphoserine, phosphothreonine and phosphotyrosine are shown. In each molecule, a phosphate is attached to an oxygen on the amino acid.
Figure 9.11 In protein phosphorylation, a phosphate group (PO4-3 ) is added to residues of the amino acids serine, threonine, and tyrosine.

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 9.12). 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 9.12 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 9.13). 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 9.13 The enzyme phospholipase C breaks down PIP2 into IP3 and DAG, both of which serve as second messengers.

Science Practice Connection for AP® Courses

Think About It

The same second messengers are used in many different cells, but the response to second messengers is different in each cell. How is this possible?


No Subcontent exists.


This section may include links to websites that contain links to articles on unrelated topics.  See the preface for more information.