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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1998 Sep 29;95(20):12038-42.

Alanine, not ammonia, is excreted from N2-fixing soybean nodule bacteroids.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211, USA.


Symbiotic nitrogen fixation, the process whereby nitrogen-fixing bacteria enter into associations with plants, provides the major source of nitrogen for the biosphere. Nitrogenase, a bacterial enzyme, catalyzes the reduction of atmospheric dinitrogen to ammonium. In rhizobia-leguminous plant symbioses, the current model of nitrogen transfer from the symbiotic form of the bacteria, called a bacteroid, to the plant is that nitrogenase-generated ammonia diffuses across the bacteroid membrane and is assimilated into amino acids outside of the bacteroid. We purified soybean nodule bacteroids by a procedure that removed contaminating plant proteins and found that alanine was the major nitrogen-containing compound excreted. Bacteroids incubated in the presence of 15N2 excreted alanine highly enriched in 15N. The ammonium in these assays neither accumulated significantly nor was enriched in 15N. The results demonstrate that a transport mechanism rather than diffusion functions at this critical step of nitrogen transfer from the bacteroids to the plant host. Alanine may serve only as a transport species, but this would permit physiological separation of the transport of fixed nitrogen from other nitrogen metabolic functions commonly mediated through glutamate.

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