Transmembrane receptors are integral membrane proteins, which reside and operate typically within a cell's plasma membrane, but also in the membranes of some subcellular compartments and organelles. Binding to a signalling molecule or sometimes to a pair of such molecules on one side of the membrane, transmembrane receptors initiate a response on the other side. In this way they play a unique and important role in cellular communications and signal transduction.
Many transmembrane receptors are composed of two or more protein subunits which operate collectively and may dissociate when ligands bind, fall off, or at another stage of their "activation" cycles. They are often classified based on their molecular structure, or because the structure is unknown in any detail for all but a few receptors, based on their hypothesized (and sometimes experimentally verified) membrane topology. The polypeptide chains of the simplest are predicted to cross the lipid bilayer only once, while others cross as many as seven times (the so-called G-protein coupled receptors).
Like any integral membrane protein, a transmembrane receptor may be subdivided into three parts or domains.
The extracellular domain is the part of the receptor that sticks out of the membrane on the outside of the cell or organelle. If the polypeptide chain of the receptor crosses the bilayer several times, the external domain can comprise several "loops" sticking out of the membrane. By definition. a receptor's main function is to recognize and respond to a specific ligand, for example, a neurotransmitter or hormone (although certain receptors respond also to changes in transmembrane potential), and in many receptors these ligands bind to the extracellular domain.
In the majority of receptors for which structural evidence exists, transmembrane alpha helices make up most of the transmembrane domain. In certain receptors, such as the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, the transmembrane domain forms a protein-lined pore through the membrane, or ion channel. Upon activation of an extracellular domain by binding of the appropriate ligand, the pore becomes accessible to ions, which then pass through. In other receptors, the transmembrane domains are presumed to undergo a conformational change upon binding, which exerts an effect intracellularly. In some receptors, such as members of the 7TM superfamily, the transmembrane domain may contain the ligand binding pocket (evidence for this and for much of what else is known about this class of receptors is based in part on studies of bacteriorhodopsin, the detailed structure of which has been determined by crystallography).
The intracellular (or cytoplasmic) domain of the receptor interacts with the interior of the cell or organelle, relaying the signal. There are two fundamentally different ways for this interaction:
There are several ways for the cell to regulate the activity of a transmembrane receptor. Most of them work through the intracellular domain. The most important ways are phosphorylation and internalization (see ubiquitin).