BACKGROUND: Nearly all processes in living cells are pH dependent, which is why intracellular pH (pH(i)) is a tightly regulated physiological parameter in all cellular systems. However, in microbes such as yeast, pH(i) responds to extracellular conditions such as the availability of nutrients. This raises the question of how pH(i) dynamics affect cellular function. METHODS: We discuss the control of pH(i,) and the regulation of processes by pH(i), focusing on the model organism Saccharomyces cerevisiae. We aim to dissect the effects of pH(i) on various aspects of cell physiology, which are often intertwined. Our goal is to provide a broad overview of how pH(i) is controlled in yeast, and how pH(i) in turn controls physiology, in the context of both general cellular functioning as well as of cellular decision making upon changes in the cell's environment. CONCLUSIONS: Besides a better understanding of the regulation of pH(i), evidence for a signaling role of pH(i) is accumulating. We conclude that pH(i) responds to nutritional cues and relays this information to alter cellular make-up and physiology. The physicochemical properties of pH allow the signal to be fast, and affect multiple regulatory levels simultaneously. CONCLUSIONS: The mechanisms for regulation of processes by pH(i) are tightly linked to the molecules that are part of all living cells, and the biophysical properties of the signal are universal amongst all living organisms, and similar types of regulation are suggested in mammals. Therefore, dynamic control of cellular decision making by pH(i) is therefore likely a general trait. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Systems Biology of Microorganisms.
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