The flagellum is an important virulence factor for bacteria pathogenic to animals and plants. Here we demonstrate that plants have a highly sensitive chemoperception system for eubacterial flagellins, specifically targeted to the most highly conserved domain within its N terminus. Synthetic peptides comprising 15-22 amino acids of this domain acted as elicitors of defence responses at sub-nanomolar concentrations in cells of tomato and several other plant species. Peptides comprising only the central 8 to 11 amino acids of the active domain had no elicitor activity but acted as specific, competitive inhibitors in tomato cells. These antagonists suppressed the plant's response to flagellin, crude bacterial extracts and living bacterial cells. Thus, plants have a highly sensitive and selective perception system for the flagellin of motile eubacteria.