|Themes > Science > Life Sciences > General Biology > Physiology > The Endocrine System > Mechanisms of Hormone Action|
The endocrine system acts by releasing hormones that in turn trigger actions in specific target cells. Receptors on target cell membranes bind only to one type of hormone. More than fifty human hormones have been identified; all act by binding to receptor molecules. The binding hormone changes the shape of the receptor causing the response to the hormone. There are two mechanisms of hormone action on all target cells.
Nonsteroid hormones (water soluble) do not enter the cell but bind to plasma membrane receptors, generating a chemical signal (second messenger) inside the target cell. Five different second messenger chemicals, including cyclic AMP have been identified. Second messengers activate other intracellular chemicals to produce the target cell response.
The action of nonsteroid hormones. Images from Purves et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 4th Edition, by Sinauer Associates (www.sinauer.com) and WH Freeman (www.whfreeman.com), used with permission.
The second mechanism involves steroid hormones, which pass through the plasma membrane and act in a two step process. Steroid hormones bind, once inside the cell, to the nuclear membrane receptors, producing an activated hormone-receptor complex. The activated hormone-receptor complex binds to DNA and activates specific genes, increasing production of proteins.