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How Our Cells Communicate in Sickness and Health

cell communication

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cells communicate with each other by releasing tiny cells known as extracellular vesicles (EVs)
  • EVs carry various proteins and genetic material that may promote disease or health, depending on their contents
  • EVs are found in blood, urine, and other bodily fluids, but it’s unknown where they originate, how they’re made, or how their “cargo of molecules” is released; in other words, EVs remain much of a mystery

By Dr. Mercola

One way your cells communicate with each other is through the release of tiny “bubbles,” known as extracellular vesicles (EVs). These tiny cells are about the size of bacteria and viruses, and they’re only visible using an electron microscope.

For many years researchers believed EVs were carrying biological debris made up of various proteins and genetic material. It’s now known EVs have a much more important role, acting as ferries to send important messages to other cells.

Now a new study using roundworms has added more insights into how these cellular messengers work.

Extracellular Vesicles May Play a Significant Role in Human Health and Disease

Researchers from Rutgers University revealed 335 genes in roundworms (C. elegans) that supply information about the biology of EVs. About 10 percent of those genes were related to the formation, release, and, possibly, function of EVs.1

EVs are found in blood, urine, cerebrospinal fluid, and more, but it’s unknown where they originate, how they’re made, or how their “cargo of molecules” is released.2 In other words, EVs remain much of a mystery.

The EVs may be good or bad. For instance, they may play a role in sending messages between cells that promote tumor growth. The study also revealed more information about how EVs are produced and why they carry certain “cargo.”

For instance, EVs are known to carry proteins responsible for polycystic kidney disease, the most commonly inherited disease in humans, but no one knows why.3 Maureen Barr, lead author and a professor in the Department of Genetics in Rutgers' School of Arts and Sciences, told Science Daily:4

"These EVs are exciting but scary because we don't know what the mechanisms are that decide what is packaged inside them … It's like getting a letter in the mail and you don't know whether it's a letter saying that you won the lottery or a letter containing anthrax."

C. elegans is the perfect vehicle for learning more about EVs because the worms have similar genes to humans. Such research could help uncover EVs’ significance for human health and disease. Barr continued5

"When we know exactly how they work, scientists will be able to use EVs for our advantage … This means that pathological EVs that cause disease could be blocked and therapeutic EVs that can help heal can be designed to carry beneficial cargo."

Your Body Is Constantly Communicating

EVs are only one way your cells receive important information. The microorganisms in your gut also play a role. For instance, your gut’s microorganisms trigger the production of cytokines. Cytokines are involved in regulating your immune system’s response to inflammation and infection.

Much like hormones, cytokines are signaling molecules that aid cell-to-cell communication, telling your cells where to go when your inflammatory response is initiated.

There are signals between your gut and your brain, most of which travel along your vagus nerve.6 Vagus is Latin for “wandering,” aptly named as this long nerve travels from your skull down through your chest and abdomen, branching to multiple organs.

Cytokine messengers produced in your gut cruise up to your brain along the “vagus nerve highway.” Once in your brain, the cytokines tell your microglia (the immune cells in your brain) to perform certain functions, such as producing neurochemicals.

Some of these have negative effects on your mitochondria, which can impact energy production and apoptosis (cell death), as well as adversely impact the very sensitive feedback system that controls your stress hormones, including cortisol.

So, this inflammatory response that started in your gut travels to your brain, which then builds on it, and sends signals to the rest of your body in a complex feedback loop. Signals from your gut microorganisms travel elsewhere in your body to, including to your skin.

Then there are your hormones, or your body’s chemical messengers, which exert their effects throughout your body, helping to coordinate biological processes like metabolism and fertility. As reported by Frontline:7

“It is thanks to these chemicals that distant parts of the body communicate with one another during elaborate, and important, events. In response to a signal from the brain, hormones are secreted directly into the blood by the glands that produce and store them.”

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Bacteria Have a Sophisticated Method of Communication

Bacteria (both good and bad) have a very sophisticated way of communicating with each other, and once they receive the signal that their numbers are sufficient to carry out their genetic function, they launch into action as a synchronized unit.

Researchers have discovered that bacteria communicate with each other using a chemical language called "quorum sensing." Every type of bacteria make and secrete small molecules. When a bacterium is alone, these molecules simply float away.

But, when there's a large enough group of bacteria, these secreted molecules increase in proportion to the number of bacteria emitting them. When the molecules reach a certain amount, the bacteria can tell how many neighbors it has, and suddenly all the bacteria begin to act as a synchronized group.

Bacteria do not only communicate in this way between their own species; they're all "multi-lingual" and can determine the presence and strength of other bacterial colonies.

Essentially, they can count how many of its own kind there are compared to the amount of another species. They then use that information to decide what tasks to carry out, depending on who's in a minority and who's in the majority of any given population of bacteria.

Even Plants Communicate

Plants communicate with other plants — even with plants of other species — through a complex underground network that includes:

  1. The plants' rhizosphere (root ball)
  2. Aerial emissions (volatile gasses emitted by the plants)
  3. Mycelial networks in the soil

These three systems work together forming a "plant internet" of sorts where information about each plant's status is constantly exchanged. One of the organisms responsible for this remarkable biochemical highway is a type of fungus called mycorrhizae. The name mycorrhiza literally means fungus root.8

These fungi form a symbiotic relationship with the plant, colonizing the roots and sending extremely fine filaments far out into the soil that act as root extensions.

Not only do these networks sound the alarm about invaders, but the filaments are more effective in nutrient and water absorption than the plant roots themselves — mycorrhizae increase the nutrient absorption of the plant 100 to 1,000 times.9

In one thimbleful of healthy soil, you can find several miles of fungal filaments, all releasing powerful enzymes that help dissolve tightly bound soil nutrients, such as organic nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron.

Previous research has shown that when a plant becomes infested with a pest like aphids for example, it warns surrounding plants of the attack via this network of mycorrhizal fungi.10

This "heads up" gives the other plants time to mount their chemical defenses in order to repel the aphids. Mycorrhizae fungi can even connect plants of different species, perhaps allowing interspecies communication.

Powerful Demonstration of Interspecies Communication

Entomologist Aaron Pomerantz was in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest when he discovered what’s described as a “weird relationship between butterflies, ants, and a parasitic plant.11 The plant appeared as yellow growths coating the side of a tree.

A caterpillar was eating the yellow buds, and the caterpillars were being “tended to” by ants, possibly as a form of protection. The ants, in turn, were stroking the caterpillars, which would release a bead of liquid nourishment that the ants consumed.

Butterflies were plentiful near the buds, too, and it turns out the caterpillars were the butterflies’ larval form. The butterflies, known as the Terenthina terentia species, even had yellow spots on their wings, presumably to blend in with the yellow parasitic plant.

Pomerantz found “nothing like this had ever been documented before,” but it’s a powerful demonstration of not only the symbiotic relationship between these species but also of interspecies communication.

Even though it’s unclear how the species are communicating – how do the ants know the caterpillars will provide food in exchange for protection, for instance? – it’s clear that they most certainly are.12 It’s another fascinating mystery of nature, and also shows that, just like within your body, complex communication is often occurring whether you’re aware of it or not.