How we sense the world has, ultimately, a cellular and molecular basis. We have these big brains that do amazingly sophisticated processing to interpret the flood of sensory information pouring in through our eyes, our skin, our ears, our noses…but when it gets right down to it, the proximate cause is the arrival of some chemical or mechanical or energetic stimulus at a cell, which then transforms the impact of the external world into ionic and electrical and chemical changes. This is a process called sensory signaling, or sensory signal transduction.
While we have multiple sensory modalities, with thousands of different specificities, many of them have a common core. We detect both light and odor (and our cells also sense neurotransmitters) with similar proteins: they use a family of G-protein-linked receptors. What that means is that the sensory stimulus is received by a receptor molecule specific for that stimulus, which then actives a G-protein on the intracellular side of the cell membrane, which in turn activates an effector enzyme that modifies the concentration of second messenger molecules in the cell. Receptors vary—you have a different receptor for each molecule you can smell. The effector enzymes vary—it can be adenylate cyclase, which changes the levels of cyclic AMP, or it can be phospholipase C, which generates other signalling molecules, DAG and IP3. The G-protein that links receptor and effector is the common element that unites a whole battery of senses. The evolutionary roots of our ability to see light and taste sugar are all tied together.
Continue reading Evolution of sensory signaling (on Pharyngula)