Secretory cells do not only respond to an agonist with a simple rise in [Ca2+]i. It is now clear that complex patterns of [Ca2+]i elevation in terms of space and time are observed in many cell types and that these patterns may be a cellular mechanism for the regulation of different responses. Ca2+ signalling in exocrine cells of the pancreas promotes the secretion of digestive enzymes and fluid. It has been shown that at high concentrations of agonist (acetylcholine or cholecystokinin) the [Ca2+]i response is initiated in the secretory pole of the cell before spreading across the whole cell. This site of initiation of the [Ca2+]i elevation is in the region where exocytotic release of enzymes occurs and is also the site of a Ca(2+)-dependent chloride channel thought to be crucially important for fluid secretion. Lower concentrations of agonist elicit [Ca2+]i oscillations with complex repetitive patterns characteristic of each agonist. At physiological agonist concentrations, we have recently described repetitive short-lasting Ca2+ spikes that are spatially restricted to the secretory pole of the cell. In addition to these spikes, cholecystokinin also promotes slow transient Ca2+ rises that result in a global rise in Ca2+. The inositol trisphosphate (InsP3) receptor plays a crucial role in all of these various agonist responses, most of which can be reproduced by the infusion of InsP3 into the cell. The high InsP3-sensitivity of the secretory pole is postulated to be due to a localization of high-affinity InsP3 receptors. We speculate that in response to cholecystokinin the short-lasting spikes elicit exocytosis from a small ‘available pool’ of vesicles and that the broader oscillations induce both exocytosis and cell changes that involve movement of vesicles into this ‘available pool’.

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