Innate immune responses, such as cell death and inflammatory signaling, are typically switch-like in nature. They also involve "prion-like" self-templating polymerization of one or more signaling proteins into massive macromolecular assemblies known as signalosomes. Despite the wealth of atomic-resolution structural information on signalosomes, how the constituent polymers nucleate and whether the switch-like nature of that event at the molecular scale relates to the digital nature of innate immune signaling at the cellular scale remains unknown. In this perspective, we review current knowledge of innate immune signalosome assembly, with an emphasis on structural constraints that allow the proteins to accumulate in inactive soluble forms poised for abrupt polymerization. We propose that structurally encoded nucleation barriers to protein polymerization kinetically regulate the corresponding pathways, which allows for extremely sensitive, rapid, and decisive signaling upon pathogen detection. We discuss how nucleation barriers satisfy the rigorous on-demand functions of the innate immune system but also predispose the system to precocious activation that may contribute to progressive age-associated inflammation.
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