Pentameric ligand-gated ion channels (pLGICs) mediate fast synaptic communication by converting chemical signals into an electrical response. Recently solved agonist-bound and agonist-free structures greatly extend our understanding of these complex molecular machines. A key challenge to a full description of function, however, is the ability to unequivocally relate determined structures to the canonical resting, open, and desensitized states. Here, we review current understanding of pLGIC structure, with a focus on the conformational changes underlying channel gating. We compare available structural information and review the evidence supporting the assignment of each structure to a particular conformational state. We discuss multiple factors that may complicate the interpretation of crystal structures, highlighting the potential influence of lipids and detergents. We contend that further advances in the structural biology of pLGICs will require deeper insight into the nature of pLGIC-lipid interactions.
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