Adhesive Specificity and the Evolution of Multicellularity


Most of the cells in a multicellular organism are connected to each other and/or attached to a substrate. Physically this is mediated by adhesion molecules exposed on the cell surface and attached to the cell membrane either by covalent linkage to the lipid bilayer or by a membrane‐spanning region. The establishment of cell–cell interactions is a key aspect in the origin of multicellular life forms and the acquisition of tissue and organ organisation in metazoa. Adhesion is mediated by specific adhesion molecules belonging to the immunoglobulin superfamily, the cadherins, the integrins, the lectins and the proteoglycans. Adhesive associations by these molecules are organising forces in the embryo, controlling morphogenesis, tissue formation and organogenesis. In the adult, cell adhesion helps to control tissue homoeostasis, the organisation of the stem cell niche and the functioning of the immune system.

Key Concepts:

  • Multicellularity requires cell–cell adhesion molecules.

  • Cell adhesion molecules interact structurally and/or functionally with the cytoskeleton of the cell.

  • Cell adhesion molecules integrate extracellular and intracellular cues with intracellular signalling.

  • Cell adhesion molecules are more than molecular glue; they can act as signalling receptors inducing changes in the cytoskeleton and in gene expression.

  • Expression of cell adhesion molecules is under tight developmental control.

  • Changes in cell adhesion are a driving force for morphogenesis, tissue formation and organogenesis.

  • In the adult cell adhesion helps to maintain the stem cell niche and controls homeostasis.

  • Cell adhesion is essential for the functioning of the immune system.

  • Aberrant regulation of cell adhesion is involved in several human diseases.

Keywords: immunology; multicellular organisms; development; morphogenesis; neurogenesis; stem cells; cadherins; integrins; lectins; organogenesis

Figure 1.

Different types of intercellular adhesion and mechanisms of strengthening. (a) Three mechanisms by which cell adhesion molecules can mediate intercellular adhesion. A cell surface molecule binds to an identical molecule (homophilic) on the opposing cell or to another adhesion receptor (heterophilic). Alternatively, cell adhesion receptors on two neighbouring cells bind to the same multivalent secreted ligand (linker‐mediated adhesion). Independently of the adhesion molecules involved, intercellular adhesion can take place between identical cell types (homotypic) or between cells of different origin (heterotypic). (b) Intercellular adhesion is strengthened by intracellular linkage to the cytoskeleton and by lateral clustering.

Figure 2.

The five major classes of cell adhesion molecules. The immunoglobulin superfamily (Ig‐like) is characterised by a various number of immunoglobulin‐like domains (open circles) and more membrane‐proximal, often fibronectin type III repeats (grey boxes). Cadherins are Ca2+‐dependent adhesion molecules consisting of a varying number of cadherin repeats (five in case of the classical cadherins) whose conformation is highly dependent on the presence of Ca2+‐ions. Integrins are functional as heterodimers consisting of an α and β subunit. Selectins contain an N‐terminal Ca2+‐dependent lectin domain (circle), a single EGF‐like repeat (grey box) and a number of repeats related to those present in complement‐binding proteins (ovals). Proteoglycans are huge molecules consisting of a relatively small protein core to which long side‐chains of negatively charged glycosaminoglycans are covalently attached. See text for details.

Figure 3.

Embryonic processes involving cell adhesion. (a) Segregation of tissues during neural tube formation resulting from different expression of adhesion molecules (light pink versus dark pink cells). (b) Dispersion of cells from a solid tissue resulting from a decrease in cell–cell adhesion. (c) Migration of cells along adhesive guidance cues. (d) Cavity formation requires a combination of intercellular sealing by tight junctions (black triangle) and vectorial ion and water transport (arrows). (e) Cell–cell communication through gap junctions (barrels) is dependent on cell–cell adhesion. See text for details.



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Vleminckx, Kris(May 2011) Adhesive Specificity and the Evolution of Multicellularity. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001273.pub2]