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What is a Cell Surface Receptor?


Updated January 21, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Definition: Cell surface receptors are proteins on the surface of cells that allow other proteins to bind to the cells. Receptors are generally highly specific for the molecules that attach to them - they work like a lock and key - and a receptor might be specialized to recognize a hormone, another type of signaling molecule, or even the marker of a particular kind of cell.

In some ways, receptors are like the address labels of biological systems - they allow communications from other cells, and even other organisms, to figure out where they need to go. There are huge numbers of biological processes that are mediated by the action of receptors - everything from the effects of estrogen in the body to recognition of foreign bacteria.

Not all receptors, however, are present on cell surfaces. Receptors are important for multiple types of cell signaling - not just between cells, but within a single cell as well. That's why some receptors are found inside a cell's cytoplasm; they regulate cell processes from there.


People often discuss specific cell receptors when they are talking about HIV infection. Most strains of HIV gain entry to white blood cells through a receptor known as CCR5, and mutations in that receptor are known to affect resistance to HIV infection.

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