a1 Laboratory of Theoretical Biology, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20205
For the cells of an organism to act in the coordinated fashion necessary for complex functioning, they must be able to receive and transmit information. Information transfer is mediated by molecules released by the cells and may be local, as in the case of neurotransmitters, or long range, as in the case of hormones. It is apparent, however, that irrespective of the range of interaction, a cell must be able to distinguish, with a high degree of precision, the signals relevant to it from an enormous flow of background noise.
Molecular recognition at the cell surface is mediated by receptors: cell surface glycoproteins that usually form an integral part of the plasma membrane (see, for example, Cuatrecasas & Greaves, 1978). Typically, receptors bind the ligands they are designed to recognize with affinities of the order of 108 M-1, and they translate that interaction into a sequence of signals that ultimately lead to biological activity.