In the 1920s, Kimball and Murlin studied pancreatic extracts and found an additional substance with hyperglycemic properties. They described glucagon in 1923. The amino acid sequence of glucagon was described in the late-1950s. A more complete understanding of its role in physiology and disease was not established until the 1970s, when a specific radioimmunoassay was developed.
The polypeptide has a molecular weight of 3485 daltons.
The hormone is synthesized and secreted from alpha cells (α-cells) of the islets of Langerhans, which are located in the endocrine portion of the pancreas. In rodents, the alpha cells are located in the outer rim of the islet. Human islet structure is much less segregated, and alpha cells are distributed throughout the islet.
Glucagon helps maintain the level of glucose in the blood by binding to glucagon receptors on hepatocytes, causing the liver to release glucose - stored in the form of glycogen - through a process known as glycogenolysis. As these stores become depleted, glucagon then encourages the liver to synthesize additional glucose by gluconeogenesis. This glucose is released into the bloodstream. Both of these mechanisms lead to glucose release by the liver, preventing the development of hypoglycemia.
Increased free fatty acids and ketoacids into the blood
Glucagon binds to the glucagon receptor, a G protein-coupled receptor located in the plasma membrane. The conformation change in the receptor activates G proteins, a heterotrimeric protein with α, β, and γ subunits. The subunits breakup under GTP hydrolysis and the alpha subunit specifically activates the next enzyme in the cascade, adenylate cyclase.
Adenylate cyclase manufactures cAMP (cyclical AMP) which activates protein kinase A (cAMP-dependent protein kinase). This enzyme in turn activates phosphorylase B kinase, which in turn, phosphorylates phosphorylase B, converting into the active form called phosphorylase A. Phosphorylase A is the enzyme responsible for the release of glucose-1-phosphate from glycogen polymers.
An injectable form of glucagon is vital first aid in cases of severe hypoglycemia when the victim is unconscious or for other reasons cannot take glucose orally. The dose for an adult is typically 1 milligram, and the glucagon is given by intramuscular, intravenous or subcutaneous injection, and quickly raises blood glucose levels. Glucagon can also be administered intravenously at 0.25 - 0.5 unit.
Anecdotal evidence suggests a benefit of higher doses of glucagon in the treatment of overdose with beta blockers; the likely mechanism of action is the increase of cAMP in the myocardium, effectively bypassing the inhibitory action of the β-adrenergic second messenger system.
Glucagon acts very quickly: common side effects include headache and nausea.
Rotating stereogram animation of glucagon. (1.70 MB, animated GIF format).
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References in pop culture
American parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic released a song entitled Pancreas on his album Straight Outta Lynwood, which uses the lyric "Insulin, Glucagon, flowing from the Islets of Langerhans" as a repeated catchy chorus in the final minute of the song.
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