Nitrogen is an essential element of life, and nitrogen availability often limits crop yields. Since the Green Revolution, massive amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers have been produced from atmospheric nitrogen and natural gas, threatening the sustainability of global food production and degrading the environment. There is a need for alternative means of bringing nitrogen to crops, and taking greater advantage of biological nitrogen fixation seems a logical option. Legumes are used in most cropping systems around the world because of the nitrogen-fixing symbiosis with rhizobia. However, the world's three major cereal crops-rice, wheat, and maize-do not associate with rhizobia. In this review, we will survey how genetic approaches in rhizobia and their legume hosts allowed tremendous progress in understanding the molecular mechanisms controlling root nodule symbioses, and how this knowledge paves the way for engineering such associations in non-legume crops. We will also discuss challenges in bringing these systems into the field and how they can be surmounted by interdisciplinary collaborations between synthetic biologists, microbiologists, plant biologists, breeders, agronomists, and policymakers.