We review the evolution and structure of members of the transforming growth factor ? (TGF-?) family, antagonistic or agonistic modulators, and receptors that regulate TGF-? signaling in extracellular environments. The growth factor (GF) domain common to all family members and many of their antagonists evolved from a common cystine knot growth factor (CKGF) domain. The CKGF superfamily comprises six distinct families in primitive metazoans, including the TGF-? and Dan families. Compared with Wnt/Frizzled and Notch/Delta families that also specify body axes, cell fate, tissues, and other families that contain CKGF domains that evolved in parallel, the TGF-? family was the most fruitful in evolution. Complexes between the prodomains and GFs of the TGF-? family suggest a new paradigm for regulating GF release by conversion from closed- to open-arm procomplex conformations. Ternary complexes of the final step in extracellular signaling show how TGF-? GF dimers bind type I and type II receptors on the cell surface, and enable understanding of much of the specificity and promiscuity in extracellular signaling. However, structures suggest that when GFs bind repulsive guidance molecule (RGM) family coreceptors, type I receptors do not bind until reaching an intracellular, membrane-enveloped compartment, blurring the line between extra- and intracellular signaling. Modulator protein structures show how structurally diverse antagonists including follistatins, noggin, and members of the chordin family bind GFs to regulate signaling; complexes with the Dan family remain elusive. Much work is needed to understand how these molecular components assemble to form signaling hubs in extracellular environments in vivo.