Ionotropic glutamate receptors (iGluRs) are ligand-gated ion channels that mediate chemical communication between neurons at synapses. A variant iGluR subfamily, the Ionotropic Receptors (IRs), was recently proposed to detect environmental volatile chemicals in olfactory cilia. Here, we elucidate how these peripheral chemosensors have evolved mechanistically from their iGluR ancestors. Using a Drosophila model, we demonstrate that IRs act in combinations of up to three subunits, comprising individual odor-specific receptors and one or two broadly expressed coreceptors. Heteromeric IR complex formation is necessary and sufficient for trafficking to cilia and mediating odor-evoked electrophysiological responses in vivo and in vitro. IRs display heterogeneous ion conduction specificities related to their variable pore sequences, and divergent ligand-binding domains function in odor recognition and cilia localization. Our results provide insights into the conserved and distinct architecture of these olfactory and synaptic ion channels and offer perspectives into the use of IRs as genetically encoded chemical sensors.