Heterotrimeric guanine-nucleotide-binding proteins (G proteins) act as molecular switches in signaling pathways by coupling the activation of heptahelical receptors at the cell surface to intracellular responses. In the resting state, the G-protein alpha subunit (Galpha) binds GDP and Gbetagamma. Receptors activate G proteins by catalyzing GTP for GDP exchange on Galpha, leading to a structural change in the Galpha(GTP) and Gbetagamma subunits that allows the activation of a variety of downstream effector proteins. The G protein returns to the resting conformation following GTP hydrolysis and subunit re-association. As the G-protein cycle progresses, the Galpha subunit traverses through a series of conformational changes. Crystallographic studies of G proteins in many of these conformations have provided substantial insight into the structures of these proteins, the GTP-induced structural changes in Galpha, how these changes may lead to subunit dissociation and allow Galpha and Gbetagamma to activate effector proteins, as well as the mechanism of GTP hydrolysis. However, relatively little is known about the receptor-G protein complex and how this interaction leads to GDP release from Galpha. This article reviews the structural determinants of the function of heterotrimeric G proteins in mammalian systems at each point in the G-protein cycle with special emphasis on the mechanism of receptor-mediated G-protein activation. The receptor-G protein complex has proven to be a difficult target for crystallography, and several biophysical and computational approaches are discussed that complement the currently available structural information to improve models of this interaction. Additionally, these approaches enable the study of G-protein dynamics in solution, which is becoming an increasingly appreciated component of all aspects of G-protein signaling.