Calcium is a ubiquitous second messenger used to regulate a wide range of cellular processes. This role in signalling has to be conducted against the rigid homeostatic mechanisms that ensure that the resting level of Ca2+ is kept low (i.e. between 20 and 100 nmol l-1) in order to avoid the cytotoxic effects of a prolonged elevation of [Ca2+]. Cells have evolved a sophisticated signalling system based on the generation of brief pulses of Ca2+ which enables this ion to be used as a messenger, thus avoiding its toxic effects. Such Ca2+ spikes usually result from the coordinated release of Ca2+ from internal stores using either inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphate or ryanodine receptors. Using Ca2+ imaging techniques, the opening of individual channels has now been visualized and models have been proposed to explain how these elementary events are coordinated to generate the global Ca2+ signals that regulate cellular activity.

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