Receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) play important roles in cell growth, motility, differentiation, and survival. These single-pass membrane proteins are grouped into subfamilies based on the similarity of their extracellular domains. They are generally thought to be activated by ligand binding, which promotes homodimerization and then autophosphorylation in trans. However, RTK interactions are more complicated, as RTKs can interact in the absence of ligand and heterodimerize within and across subfamilies. Here, we review the known cross-subfamily RTK heterointeractions and their possible biological implications, as well as the methodologies which have been used to study them. Moreover, we demonstrate how thermodynamic models can be used to study RTKs and to explain many of the complicated biological effects which have been described in the literature. Finally, we discuss the concept of the RTK interactome: a putative, extensive network of interactions between the RTKs. This RTK interactome can produce unique signaling outputs; can amplify, inhibit, and modify signaling; and can allow for signaling backups. The existence of the RTK interactome could provide an explanation for the irreproducibility of experimental data from different studies and for the failure of some RTK inhibitors to produce the desired therapeutic effects. We argue that a deeper knowledge of RTK interactome thermodynamics can lead to a better understanding of fundamental RTK signaling processes in health and disease. We further argue that there is a need for quantitative, thermodynamic studies that probe the strengths of the interactions between RTKs and their ligands and between different RTKs.
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