Understanding cell signalling systems: paving the way for new therapies
The cell-to-cell signalling mechanisms of multi-cellular organisms orchestrate human development during embryogenesis and control homeostasis in adult tissues. These are mechanisms vital to human health and perturbation of cell-to-cell signalling is a contributing factor in many pathologies including cancer. The semaphorin cell guidance cues and their cognate plexin receptors exemplify a cell-to-cell signalling system for which insights into mechanistic principles are emerging. X-ray crystallographic data from Diamond beam lines have enabled us to probe the inner workings of semaphorin–plexin signalling to atomic-level resolutions. Importantly, we can complement protein crystallographic results with biophysical and cellular studies to dovetail structural information with functional impact. The signature seven-bladed β propeller ‘sema’ domain of the semaphorins forms a dimer; in contrast the equivalent domain in the plexins is monomeric. The generic architecture of a semaphorin–plexin complex is characterized by the dimeric semaphorin cross-linking two copies of the plexin receptor. For specific family members, the co-receptor neuropilin serves to bolster this architecture, but in all cases, the dimeric interaction lies at the core of the ligand receptor complex, providing the essential trigger for signalling.