The rules of engagement in the legume-rhizobial symbiosis

Annu Rev Genet. 2011;45:119-44. doi: 10.1146/annurev-genet-110410-132549. Epub 2011 Aug 11.


Rhizobial bacteria enter a symbiotic association with leguminous plants, resulting in differentiated bacteria enclosed in intracellular compartments called symbiosomes within nodules on the root. The nodules and associated symbiosomes are structured for efficient nitrogen fixation. Although the interaction is beneficial to both partners, it comes with rigid rules that are strictly enforced by the plant. Entry into root cells requires appropriate recognition of the rhizobial Nod factor signaling molecule, and this recognition activates a series of events, including polarized root-hair tip growth, invagination associated with bacterial infection, and the promotion of cell division in the cortex leading to the nodule meristem. The plant's command of the infection process has been highlighted by its enforcement of terminal differentiation upon the bacteria within nodules of some legumes, and this can result in a loss of bacterial viability while permitting effective nitrogen fixation. Here, we review the mechanisms by which the plant allows bacterial infection and promotes the formation of the nodule, as well as the details of how this intimate association plays out inside the cells of the nodule where a complex interchange of metabolites and regulatory peptides force the bacteria into a nitrogen-fixing organelle-like state.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cytokinins / metabolism
  • Fabaceae / microbiology*
  • Indoleacetic Acids / metabolism
  • Meristem / metabolism
  • Nitrogen Fixation
  • Plant Growth Regulators / metabolism
  • Plant Root Nodulation
  • Plant Roots / metabolism
  • Plant Roots / microbiology*
  • Rhizobium / growth & development*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Symbiosis*
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism


  • Cytokinins
  • Indoleacetic Acids
  • Plant Growth Regulators
  • Transcription Factors