Rhizobia are symbiotic bacteria that elicit the formation on leguminous plants of specialized organs, root nodules, in which they fix nitrogen. In various Rhizobium species, such as R. leguminosarum and R. meliloti, common and host-specific nodulation (nod) genes have been identified which determine infection and nodulation of specific hosts. Common nodABC genes as well as host-specific nodH and nodQ genes were shown recently, using bioassays, to be involved in the production of extracellular Nod signals. Using R. meliloti strains overproducing symbiotic Nod factors, we have purified the major alfalfa-specific signal, NodRm-1, by gel permeation, ion exchange and C18 reverse-phase high performance liquid chromatography. From mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance, (35)S-labelling and chemical modification studies, NodRm-1 was shown to be a sulphated beta-1,4-tetrasaccharide of D-glucosamine (Mr 1,102) in which three amino groups were acetylated and one was acylated with a C16 bis-unsaturated fatty acid. This purified Nod signal specifically elicited root hair deformation on the homologous host when added in nanomolar concentration.