Autocrine loops with positive feedback enable context-dependent cell signaling

Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2002 Mar;282(3):C545-59. doi: 10.1152/ajpcell.00260.2001.


We describe a mechanism for context-dependent cell signaling mediated by autocrine loops with positive feedback. We demonstrate that the composition of the extracellular medium can critically influence the intracellular signaling dynamics induced by extracellular stimuli. Specifically, in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) system, amplitude and duration of mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) activation are modulated by the positive-feedback loop formed by the EGFR, the Ras-MAPK signaling pathway, and a ligand-releasing protease. The signaling response to a transient input is short-lived when most of the released ligand is lost to the cellular microenvironment by diffusion and/or interaction with an extracellular ligand-binding component. In contrast, the response is prolonged or persistent in a cell that is efficient in recapturing the endogenous ligand. To study functional capabilities of autocrine loops, we have developed a mathematical model that accounts for ligand release, transport, binding, and intracellular signaling. We find that context-dependent signaling arises as a result of dynamic interaction between the parts of an autocrine loop. Using the model, we can directly interpret experimental observations on context-dependent responses of autocrine cells to ionizing radiation. In human carcinoma cells, MAPK signaling patterns induced by a short pulse of ionizing radiation can be transient or sustained, depending on cell type and composition of the extracellular medium. On the basis of our model, we propose that autocrine loops in this, and potentially other, growth factor and cytokine systems may serve as modules for context-dependent cell signaling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Autocrine Communication / physiology*
  • Biological Transport / physiology
  • Diffusion
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • Feedback, Physiological / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • MAP Kinase Signaling System*
  • Mathematics
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • Models, Biological
  • Protein Binding
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Transforming Growth Factor alpha / metabolism
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Ligands
  • Transforming Growth Factor alpha
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases