Multicellular organisms like ourselves depend on a constant flow of information between cells, coordinating their activities in order to proliferate and differentiate. Deciphering the language of intercellular communication has long been a central challenge in biology. Now, Caltech scientists have discovered that cells have evolved a way to transmit more messages through a single pathway, or communication channel, than previously thought, by encoding the messages rhythmically over time. The work, conducted in the laboratory of Michael Elowitz (photo), PhD, Professor of Biology and Bioengineering, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and Executive Officer for Biological Engineering, is described in a paper in the February 8, 2018 issue of Cell. The open-access paper is titled "Dynamic Ligand Discrimination in the Notch Signaling Pathway." In particular, the scientists studied a key communication system called "Notch," which is used in nearly every tissue in animals. Malfunctions in the Notch pathway contribute to a variety of cancers and developmental diseases, making it a desirable target to study for drug development. Cells carry out their conversations using specialized communication molecules called ligands, which interact with corresponding molecular antennae called receptors. When a cell uses the Notch pathway to communicate instructions to its neighbors--telling them to divide, for example, or to differentiate into a different kind of cell--the cell sending the message will produce certain Notch ligands on its surface. These ligands then bind to Notch receptors embedded in the surface of nearby cells, triggering the receptors to release gene-modifying molecules called transcription factors into the interior of their cell.
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