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J Bacteriol. Aug 1990; 172(8): 4295–4306.
PMCID: PMC213254

Correlation between ultrastructural differentiation of bacteroids and nitrogen fixation in alfalfa nodules.


Bacteroid differentiation was examined in developing and mature alfalfa nodules elicited by wild-type or Fix- mutant strains of Rhizobium meliloti. Ultrastructural studies of wild-type nodules distinguished five steps in bacteroid differentiation (types 1 to 5), each being restricted to a well-defined histological region of the nodule. Correlative studies between nodule development, bacteroid differentiation, and acetylene reduction showed that nitrogenase activity was always associated with the differentiation of the distal zone III of the nodule. In this region, the invaded cells were filled with heterogeneous type 4 bacteroids, the cytoplasm of which displayed an alternation of areas enriched with ribosomes or with DNA fibrils. Cytological studies of complementary halves of transversally sectioned mature nodules confirmed that type 4 bacteroids were always observed in the half of the nodule expressing nitrogenase activity, while the presence of type 5 bacteroids could never be correlated with acetylene reduction. Bacteria with a transposon Tn5 insertion in pSym fix genes elicited the development of Fix- nodules in which bacteroids could not develop into the last two ultrastructural types. The use of mutant strains deleted of DNA fragments bearing functional reiterated pSym fix genes and complemented with recombinant plasmids, each carrying one of these fragments, strengthened the correlation between the occurrence of type 4 bacteroids and acetylene reduction. A new nomenclature is proposed to distinguish the histological areas in alfalfa nodules which account for and are correlated with the multiple stages of bacteroid development.

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