How the cell signaling pathways evolved

Evolutionary studies on signaling pathways were carried out on organisms thought to represent the taxa and were phylogenetically informative. The majority of the studies on signaling pathways was studied in bilaterians leaving behind a question regarding the development of cell communication in other animal phyla such as Diploblasts and Protists.

Recent studies on Diploblasts have shown that they even contain several signaling pathways. Research on unicellular organisms (unicellular eukaryotes and plants) does not provide evidence for advanced signaling pathways.

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The availability of whole-genome sequences of the organism such as C. elegans, Drosophila melanogaster, S.cerevisiae, and humans have provided an insight into the evolution of signaling pathways. This helped in understanding the number of signaling components in a species. It also helped in determining whether any relationship exists between the complexity of signaling pathways and body plan.

Expansion of protein families took place in vertebrates compared to invertebrates. For example: 29 ligands of TGF-β domains were found in humans, whereas only 6 in C. elegans. However, gene expansions, on the other hand, were more widely seen in invertebrates. Example: 270 nuclear hormone receptors were encoded by the C. elegans genome, while humans encoded only 59 nuclear receptors.

However, gene numbers and the abundance of signaling pathways are not sufficient enough to determine the complexity of an organism. With more and more studies on the eukaryotic genome being published, the evolution of signaling pathways becomes clearer.

It has been shown that during the formation of the new body plan, the same developmental pathways are recruited to the new cells and tissues, thus resulting in the co-option of the signaling pathway. Apart from transcription factors, many other components of the signaling pathway act together to be co-expressed in a new cell type. This is referred to as syn expression that is a set of genes acting similarly in different cells. Thus, studies on the co-option of signaling pathways and transcription factors provide insight into animal evolution.

Components required for cell communication:
a) Ligands- in response to different stimuli such as electrical, chemical, and mechanical stimulus, cells produce different signaling molecules termed as ligands. Signaling can be of different types based on the distance traveled by the signaling molecule such as endocrine signaling (long-range communication), paracrine signaling (communication lasting over a short distance), autocrine signaling (when the molecule acts on the cell producing it), juxtacrine signaling (contact-dependent signaling), and neurotransmitter-mediated signaling (acting at the synapse).

Ligands are chemically diverse ranging from proteins, lipids, polymers of sugars, and nucleic acids.

b) Receptors- The two types are cell surface and intracellular receptors. Intracellular receptors are located in either cytosol or nucleus specific for thyroid hormones, steroid hormones, Vitamin D, and retinoids. These receptors are classified as the family of nuclear receptors.

Cell surface receptors bind hydrophilic and certain lipophilic molecules. These receptors act through secondary intracellular messengers to produce their effect.

c) Specificity in signaling- receptors exhibit high affinity toward their ligands with receptor binding only the correct ligand.

Different cells have a different number of receptors with some cells presenting with a large number of receptors, while other cells are completely devoid of receptors. Similar components have been observed in prokaryotes indicating that ancestral signaling pathways evolved in prokaryotes and have since been adopted in eukaryotes. Research has revealed that specificity in pathways is a result of the combination of 5 different mechanisms.


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