Symbiotic nitrogen-fixing root nodules on legumes are founded by root cortical cells that de-differentiate and restart cell division to establish nodule primordia. Bacterial microsymbionts invade these primordia through infection threads laid down by the plant and, after endocytosis, membrane-enclosed bacteroids occupy cells in the nitrogen-fixing tissue of functional nodules. The bacteria excrete lipochitin oligosaccharides, triggering a developmental process that is controlled by the plant and can be suppressed. Nodule inception initially relies on cell competence in a narrow infection zone located just behind the growing root tip. Older nodules then regulate the number of nodules on a root system by suppressing the development of nodule primordia. To identify the regulatory components that act early in nodule induction, we characterized a transposon-tagged Lotus japonicus mutant, nin (for nodule inception), arrested at the stage of bacterial recognition. We show that nin is required for the formation of infection threads and the initiation of primordia. NIN protein has regional similarity to transcription factors, and the predicted DNA-binding/dimerization domain identifies and typifies a consensus motif conserved in plant proteins with a function in nitrogen-controlled development.