Intercellular communication in metazoa not only requires autocrine, paracrine and exocrine signalling systems, but it also relies on the structural and positional information encoded in extracellular matrices (ECMs). Most cells in tissues are structurally and functionally integrated with their surrounding ECM in a highly organised manner involving thousands of dynamic connections. On the intracellular face of these linkages, adhesion receptors - principally integrins and syndecans - link the cytoskeleton to the plasma membrane and compartmentalise cytoplasmic signalling events, whereas at the extracellular face the same receptors direct and organise the deposition of the ECM itself. Adhesion receptors transduce mechanical force bidirectionally across the plasma membrane by tethering variably deformable ECMs to the contractile cytoskeleton (Figure 1), and they translate the topography and composition of the ECM into chemical signals that determine behaviour. The membrane-proximal functions of adhesion receptors in turn trigger distal processes within cells, such as alterations in the direction of cell movement and the regulation of gene transcription, and long-range effects outside cells, such as the construction of ECM networks and consequent shaping of higher-order tissue structure. Given the diverse and fundamental roles attributed to adhesion, it is understandable that adhesion receptor engagement has been reported to alter the flux through virtually all major signalling pathways.
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