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Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek. 1994;65(2):81-98.

The molecular basis of the host specificity of the Rhizobium bacteria.

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  • 1Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences, Clusius Laboratory, Leiden University, The Netherlands.


The interaction between soil bacteria belonging to the genera Rhizobium, Bradyrhizobium and Azorhizobium and leguminous plants results in the induction of a new plant organ, the root nodule. After invading these root nodules via infection threads the bacteria start to fix atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia which is beneficial for the host plant. This symbiotic interaction is highly host-specific in that each rhizobial strain is able to associate with only a limited number of host plant species. The subject of this presentation is the molecular mechanism by which the bacterium determines its host-specific characteristics. This mechanism appears to be based on at least two stages of molecular signaling between the bacterium and the plant host. In the first stage, flavonoids secreted by the plant root induce, in a host specific way, the transcription of bacterial genes which are involved in nodulation, the so-called nod genes. This leads to the second step of the signaling system: the production and secretion of lipo-oligosaccharide molecules by the Rhizobium bacteria. These signal molecules, which are acylated forms of small fragments of chitin, have various discernable effects on the roots of the host plants. One of these effects is the dedifferentiation of groups of cells located in the cortex which leads to the formation of nodule meristems. In their mitogenic activity the bacterial signals resemble several well-known plant hormones like auxins and cytokinins. However, there are two major differences: (i) the bacterial signals lead to the induction of a specific organ and (ii) they are host-specific in that only the signals produced by compatible bacteria are able to induce meristems. The nod genes determine this stage of host specificity by their essential role in the biosynthesis of the signal molecules. They appear to encode enzymes which are involved in the processes of fatty acid biosynthesis, fatty acid transfer, chitin synthesis and chitin modification. I will illustrate the statement that the nod gene products are ideal model enzymes for the study of these important processes because they are not needed in the free-living state of the bacteria.

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