The evolving role of lipid rafts and caveolae in G protein-coupled receptor signaling: implications for molecular pharmacology

Br J Pharmacol. 2004 Sep;143(2):235-45. doi: 10.1038/sj.bjp.0705930. Epub 2004 Aug 2.


The many components of G-protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) signal transduction provide cells with numerous combinations with which to customize their responses to hormones, neurotransmitters, and pharmacologic agonists. GPCRs function as guanine nucleotide exchange factors for heterotrimeric (alpha, beta, gamma) G proteins, thereby promoting exchange of GTP for GDP and, in turn, the activation of 'downstream' signaling components. Recent data indicate that individual cells express mRNA for perhaps over 100 different GPCRs (out of a total of nearly a thousand GPCR genes), several different combinations of G-protein subunits, multiple regulators of G-protein signaling proteins (which function as GTPase activating proteins), and various isoforms of downstream effector molecules. The differential expression of such protein combinations allows for modulation of signals that are customized for a specific cell type, perhaps at different states of maturation or differentiation. In addition, in the linear arrangement of molecular interactions involved in a given GPCR-G-protein-effector pathway, one needs to consider the localization of receptors and post-receptor components in subcellular compartments, microdomains, and molecular complexes, and to understand the movement of proteins between these compartments. Co-localization of signaling components, many of which are expressed at low overall concentrations, allows cells to tailor their responses by arranging, or spatially organizing in unique and kinetically favorable ways, the molecules involved in GPCR signal transduction. This review focuses on the role of lipid rafts and a subpopulation of such rafts, caveolae, as a key spatial compartment enriched in components of GPCR signal transduction. Recent data suggest cell-specific patterns for expression of those components in lipid rafts and caveolae. Such domains likely define functionally important, cell-specific regions of signaling by GPCRs and drugs active at those GPCRs.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Caveolae / chemistry*
  • Caveolae / drug effects
  • Caveolae / physiology*
  • Cholesterol / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Lipids / chemistry
  • Lipids / physiology*
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / chemistry
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / drug effects
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Sphingolipids / chemistry


  • Lipids
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled
  • Sphingolipids
  • Cholesterol