Extracellular ATP as a signaling molecule for epithelial cells

Biochim Biophys Acta. 2003 Sep 2;1615(1-2):7-32. doi: 10.1016/s0005-2736(03)00210-4.


The charge of this invited review is to present a convincing case for the fact that cells release their ATP for physiological reasons. Many of our "purinergic" colleagues as well as ourselves have experienced resistance to this concept, because it is teleologically counter-intuitive. This review serves to integrate the three main tenets of extracellular ATP signaling: ATP release from cells, ATP receptors on cells, and ATP receptor-driven signaling within cells to affect cell or tissue physiology. First principles will be discussed in the Introduction concerning extracellular ATP signaling. All possible cellular mechanisms of ATP release will then be presented. Use of nucleotide and nucleoside scavengers as well as broad-specificity purinergic receptor antagonists will be presented as a method of detecting endogenous ATP release affecting a biological endpoint. Innovative methods of detecting released ATP by adapting luciferase detection reagents or by using "biosensors" will be presented. Because our laboratory has been primarily interested in epithelial cell physiology and pathophysiology for several years, the role of extracellular ATP in regulation of epithelial cell function will be the focus of this review. For ATP release to be physiologically relevant, receptors for ATP are required at the cell surface. The families of P2Y G protein-coupled receptors and ATP-gated P2X receptor channels will be introduced. Particular attention will be paid to P2X receptor channels that mediate the fast actions of extracellular ATP signaling, much like neurotransmitter-gated channels versus metabotropic heptahelical neurotransmitter receptors that couple to G proteins. Finally, fascinating biological paradigms in which extracellular ATP signaling has been implicated will be highlighted. It is the goal of this review to convert and attract new scientists into the exploding field of extracellular nucleotide signaling and to convince the reader that extracellular ATP is indeed a signaling molecule.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphate / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Epithelium / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Ion Channels / metabolism
  • Receptors, Purinergic P2 / metabolism
  • Receptors, Purinergic P2X
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*


  • Ion Channels
  • Receptors, Purinergic P2
  • Receptors, Purinergic P2X
  • Adenosine Triphosphate