The assembly of proteins into complexes is fundamental to nearly all biological signalling processes. Symmetry is a dominant feature of the structures of experimentally determined protein complexes, observed in the vast majority of homomers and many heteromers. However, some asymmetric structures exist, and asymmetry also often forms transiently, intractable to traditional structure determination methods. Here, we explore the role of protein complex symmetry and asymmetry in cellular signalling, focusing on receptors, transcription factors and transmembrane channels, among other signalling assemblies. We highlight a recurrent tendency for asymmetry to be crucial for signalling function, often being associated with activated states. We conclude with a discussion of how consideration of protein complex symmetry and asymmetry has significant potential implications and applications for pharmacology and human disease.

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