Glutamate-gated ion channels (iGluRs) predominantly operate as heterotetramers to mediate excitatory neurotransmission at glutamatergic synapses. The subunit composition of the receptors determines their targeting to synaptic sites and signalling properties and is therefore a fundamental parameter for neuronal computations. iGluRs assemble as obligatory or preferential heteromers; the mechanisms underlying this selective assembly are only starting to emerge. Here we review recent work in the field and provide an in-depth update on atomic determinants in the assembly domains, which have been facilitated by recent advances in iGluR structural biology. We also discuss the role of alternative RNA processing in the ligand-binding domain, which modulates a central subunit interface and has the capacity to modulate receptor formation in response to external cues. Finally, we review the emerging physiological significance of signalling via distinct iGluR heterotetramers and provide examples of how recruitment of functionally diverse receptors modulates excitatory neurotransmission under physiological and pathological conditions.