The composition and spatial arrangement of subunits in ion channels are essential for their function. Diverse stoichiometries are possible in a multitude of channels. These depend upon cell type-specific subunit expression, which can be tuned in a developmentally regulated manner and in response to activity, on subunit stability in the endoplasmic reticulum, intersubunit affinities, and potentially subunit diffusion within the ER membrane. In concert, these parameters shape channel biogenesis and ultimately tune cellular response properties. The complexity of this assembly process is particularly well illustrated by the ionotropic glutamate receptors, the main mediators of excitatory neurotransmission. These tetrameric cation channels predominantly assemble into heteromers, which is "obligatory" for some iGluR subfamilies but "preferential" for others. Here, we discuss recent insights into the rules underlying these two pathways, the role of individual domains based on an ever increasing list of crystal structures, and how these assembly parameters tune assembly across diverse receptor oligomers.
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