The ability of differing subunit combinations of 5-HT3 receptors to form functional cell surface receptors was analyzed by a variety of approaches. The results revealed that 5-HT3 receptor assembly occurred within the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) and involved the interaction with chaperone proteins. The 5-HT3A subunit could assemble into functional homomeric receptors that were expressed on the cell surface. In contrast, the 5-HT3B subunit did not exhibit 5-hydroxytryptamine binding or function, could not assemble, and was efficiently retained and degraded within the ER. However, upon the coexpression of the 5-HT3A subunit, 5-HT3B could be "rescued" from the ER and transported to the cell surface to form functional heteromeric receptors with distinct functional characteristics. In support of the existence of homomeric 5-HT3 receptors in vivo, recombinantly expressed 5-HT3A receptors were capable of clustered cell surface expression in cortical neurons.