Phosphate as a Signaling Molecule and Its Sensing Mechanism

Physiol Rev. 2018 Oct 1;98(4):2317-2348. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00022.2017.


In mammals, phosphate balance is maintained by influx and efflux via the intestines, kidneys, bone, and soft tissue, which involves multiple sodium/phosphate (Na+/Pi) cotransporters, as well as regulation by several hormones. Alterations in the levels of extracellular phosphate exert effects on both skeletal and extra-skeletal tissues, and accumulating evidence has suggested that phosphate itself evokes signal transduction to regulate gene expression and cell behavior. Several in vitro studies have demonstrated that an elevation in extracellular Pi activates fibroblast growth factor receptor, Raf/MEK (mitogen-activated protein kinase/ERK kinase)/ERK (extracellular signal-regulated kinase) pathway and Akt pathway, which might involve the type III Na+/Pi cotransporter PiT-1. Excessive phosphate loading can lead to various harmful effects by accelerating ectopic calcification, enhancing oxidative stress, and dysregulating signal transduction. The responsiveness of mammalian cells to altered extracellular phosphate levels suggests that they may sense and adapt to phosphate availability, although the precise mechanism for phosphate sensing in mammals remains unclear. Unicellular organisms, such as bacteria and yeast, use some types of Pi transporters and other molecules, such as kinases, to sense the environmental Pi availability. Multicellular animals may need to integrate signals from various organs to sense the phosphate levels as a whole organism, similarly to higher plants. Clarification of the phosphate-sensing mechanism in humans may lead to the development of new therapeutic strategies to prevent and treat diseases caused by phosphate imbalance.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Oxidative Stress / physiology
  • Phosphates / metabolism*
  • Protein Transport / physiology
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*


  • Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Phosphates