Swarming is a form of bacterial translocation that involves cell differentiation and is characterized by a rapid and co-ordinated population migration across solid surfaces. We have isolated a Tn5 mutant of Sinorhizobium meliloti GR4 showing conditional swarming. Swarm cells from the mutant strain QS77 induced on semi-solid minimal medium in response to different signals are hyperflagellated and about twice as long as wild-type cells. Genetic and physiological characterization of the mutant strain indicates that QS77 is altered in a gene encoding a homologue of the FadD protein (long-chain fatty acyl-CoA ligase) of several microorganisms. Interestingly and similar to a less virulent Xanthomonas campestris fadD(rpfB) mutant, QS77 is impaired in establishing an association with its host plant. In trans expression of multicopy fadD restored growth on oleate, control of motility and the symbiotic phenotype of QS77, as well as acyl-CoA synthetase activity of an Escherichia coli fadD mutant. The S. meliloti QS77 strain shows a reduction in nod gene expression as well as a differential regulation of motility genes in response to environmental conditions. These data suggest that, in S. meliloti, fatty acid derivatives may act as intracellular signals controlling motility and symbiotic performance through gene expression.