In commemoration of 100 years since the discovery of glucagon, we review current knowledge about the human α cell. Alpha cells make up 30-40% of human islet endocrine cells and play a major role in regulating whole-body glucose homeostasis, largely through the direct actions of their main secretory product – glucagon – on peripheral organs. Additionally, glucagon and other secretory products of α cells, namely acetylcholine, glutamate, and GLP-1, have been shown to play an indirect role in the modulation of glucose homeostasis through autocrine and paracrine interactions within the islet. Studies of glucagon’s role as a counterregulatory hormone have revealed additional important functions of the α cell, including the regulation of multiple aspects of energy metabolism outside that of glucose. At the molecular level, human α cells are defined by expression of conserved islet-enriched transcription factors and various enriched signature genes, many of which have currently unknown cellular functions. Despite these common threads, notable heterogeneity exists amongst human α cell gene expression and function. Even greater differences are noted at the interspecies level, underscoring the importance of further study of α cell physiology in the human context. Finally, studies on α cell morphology and function in type 1 and type 2 diabetes, as well as other forms of metabolic stress, reveal a key contribution of α cell dysfunction to dysregulated glucose homeostasis in disease pathogenesis, making targeting the α cell an important focus for improving treatment.
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