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Cell Communication: Processes and Examples

Joseph Comunale, Elizabeth Friedl
  • Author
    Joseph Comunale

    Joseph Comunale obtained a Bachelor's in Philosophy from UCF before becoming a high school science teacher for five years. He has taught Earth-Space Science and Integrated Science at a Title 1 School in Florida and has Professional Teacher's Certification for Earth-Space Science.

  • Instructor
    Elizabeth Friedl

    Elizabeth, a Licensed Massage Therapist, has a Master's in Zoology from North Carolina State, one in GIS from Florida State University, and a Bachelor's in Biology from Eastern Michigan University. She has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Explore cell communication. Learn the definition of cell communication and understand how it works. Discover the importance of cell communication with examples. Updated: 02/04/2022

What is Cell Communication?

Cell communication, or cellular communication, is a process where a cell is able to influence the behavior of other cells through signaling mechanisms. Cell communication is necessary for multicellular organisms like humans, though it does predate multicellular organisms.

Multicellular organisms need their cells to communicate with each other to have their cells work together and coordinate their cellular activities. Cell communication between cells in a multicellular organism is necessary for cells to know when to assist in replicating and repairing damaged tissue, sensing pain, and informing the larger organism that it is hungry, thirsty, or tired.

Cellular Communication

Remember playing the game 'telephone' as a kid? One person started with a message that got passed down the line through whispers. As the message made its way from person to person, it changed into something different and by the end may have had nothing to do with the original statement. This happens because there is a communication problem along the line. It shows you just how important good communication is, even with something as simple as a child's game.

Your cells also rely on good communication, but unlike a game of telephone, if there is a miscommunication, the consequences can be quite severe!

Cell-to-cell signaling is a critical component of coordinating cellular activities. Through this communication, messages are carried from signaling cells to receiving cells, also known as target cells. This signaling occurs with proteins and other types of signaling molecules. What kinds of processes and activities depend on cell communication? Just about everything you can imagine that happens in your body - growth and development, cellular reproduction, tissue repair, sensing pain, and much more.

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How Do Cells Communicate?

Cells communicate along what is called a signal transduction pathway. This pathway is a series of molecular changes that allow a signaling cell to send a message that a target cell can receive and have an appropriate response. This process works by a signaling cell releasing a signaling molecule which is usually a volatile or soluble molecule called ligand. Once the signal molecule reaches a target cell, it binds to a receptor protein on the target cell's cellular membrane in a process called reception. After the signal molecule achieves reception, another step in the process begins called transduction. During this process, the target cell passes the signal molecule between its various receptors.

The signal molecule travels a path from the outside of the target cell to the inside. There are receptors such as the proteins on the cell's membrane, and there are internal receptors which are found in the cytoplasm or inside the cell. The signal molecule is relayed from the cell membrane receptor, then passes through the cell membrane and into the cytoplasm signal transduction.


This image shows how a cell receives a signal molecule which binds to its protein receptor and then transduction begins.

This image shows cell to cell interaction or a portion of the cell communication pathway.


Once the signal molecule reaches a certain protein within the cell, it binds to it and triggers a signaling response by the cell. The response from the target cell is simply the behavior that the signaling cell intended to entice. This response, of course, will vary and depend on the message which was received by the target cell. So, what things entice these cell-to-cell contacts or cell-to-cell communications? Or why do cells need to communicate?

Why Do Cells Need to Communicate?

Cells need to communicate with each other for numerous reasons. The communication between cells triggers many responses by cells. Responses to signals and therefore reasons for why signals are sent can include:

  • Changes in gene expression or an increase or decrease in the production of a protein which is coded by a gene.
  • Cell division and tissue repair. Cells within a multicellular organism usually do not divide until they have received signals from other cells telling them the reproduction is needed.
  • Apoptosis is a process where a cell self-destructs. This process is signaled by other cells if the cell is damaged, or if it is infected by a virus or bacteria.
  • Cells may need more energy and therefore cells might be signaled to increase their cellular metabolism in order to convert glucose to glycogen or the reverse.
  • Cells also communicate with one another to send signals to the larger organism that they make up. Cells in the body and stomach signal the brain when nutrients and materials are needed, and therefore the larger organism feels hungry or thirsty. Nerve cells in an organism's body, will send signals to the brain when damage has occurred to tissues that nerve cells are attached to, and the organism will feel pain.

How Cells Communicate

The pathway along which cellular communication occurs is called the signal transduction pathway. It's a series of cellular and molecular changes that help a target cell receive a message and respond accordingly. These pathways are crucial to cellular function because they're the main mode of communication between cells.

Here's how it works. First, a signaling cell secretes a signaling molecule, which then travels with its message to the target cell. Once it reaches the target cell, it binds with a receptor protein in the target cell's membrane. This is the first step of cell signaling, called reception.

This receptor protein is like the security guard at an entrance gate - it's the designated 'check-in' point for the signaling molecule. When the receptor protein security guard accepts the signaling molecule and binds to it, a relay begins, which is the second step of cell signaling, called transduction. Just like a baton is passed from person to person in a relay race, so is the signal in the target cell through the process of transduction as it passes from relay molecule to relay molecule.

The final relay molecule activates a protein that triggers the final stage of cell signaling, called response. Each response is different because it depends on the message that was carried through the cell.

Cell Communication Is Universal

Just how important is cell communication? It seems that this process is a fairly ancient one and one that most organisms have in common. For example, cell communication is necessary for reproduction, not just of individual cells, but also for entire organisms.

Let's look at yeast as an example. Some yeast cells not only make delicious bread and beer, but they also help us understand how chemical signals can be used to communicate complex information between cells. Even without the ability to make flirty eye contact, these organisms can tell which cells will help them reproduce and create new offspring, and they do this by identifying their 'mates' through chemical signals.

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Video Transcript

Cellular Communication

Remember playing the game 'telephone' as a kid? One person started with a message that got passed down the line through whispers. As the message made its way from person to person, it changed into something different and by the end may have had nothing to do with the original statement. This happens because there is a communication problem along the line. It shows you just how important good communication is, even with something as simple as a child's game.

Your cells also rely on good communication, but unlike a game of telephone, if there is a miscommunication, the consequences can be quite severe!

Cell-to-cell signaling is a critical component of coordinating cellular activities. Through this communication, messages are carried from signaling cells to receiving cells, also known as target cells. This signaling occurs with proteins and other types of signaling molecules. What kinds of processes and activities depend on cell communication? Just about everything you can imagine that happens in your body - growth and development, cellular reproduction, tissue repair, sensing pain, and much more.

How Cells Communicate

The pathway along which cellular communication occurs is called the signal transduction pathway. It's a series of cellular and molecular changes that help a target cell receive a message and respond accordingly. These pathways are crucial to cellular function because they're the main mode of communication between cells.

Here's how it works. First, a signaling cell secretes a signaling molecule, which then travels with its message to the target cell. Once it reaches the target cell, it binds with a receptor protein in the target cell's membrane. This is the first step of cell signaling, called reception.

This receptor protein is like the security guard at an entrance gate - it's the designated 'check-in' point for the signaling molecule. When the receptor protein security guard accepts the signaling molecule and binds to it, a relay begins, which is the second step of cell signaling, called transduction. Just like a baton is passed from person to person in a relay race, so is the signal in the target cell through the process of transduction as it passes from relay molecule to relay molecule.

The final relay molecule activates a protein that triggers the final stage of cell signaling, called response. Each response is different because it depends on the message that was carried through the cell.

Cell Communication Is Universal

Just how important is cell communication? It seems that this process is a fairly ancient one and one that most organisms have in common. For example, cell communication is necessary for reproduction, not just of individual cells, but also for entire organisms.

Let's look at yeast as an example. Some yeast cells not only make delicious bread and beer, but they also help us understand how chemical signals can be used to communicate complex information between cells. Even without the ability to make flirty eye contact, these organisms can tell which cells will help them reproduce and create new offspring, and they do this by identifying their 'mates' through chemical signals.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Do cells communicate with each other?

Yes, cells communicate with each other. A cell which needs to send a message or communication will send a specific signal molecule. This molecule is received by a target cell by binding to a receptor protein. Transduction then occurs and the target cell relays the molecule across its cell membrane and into its cytoplasm where it can determine the appropriate response.

What is cell to cell communication called?

Cell to cell communication is generally called cellular communication. It may also be referred to as cell to cell signaling.

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