Sinorhizobium meliloti Functions Required for Resistance to Antimicrobial NCR Peptides and Bacteroid Differentiation

mBio. 2021 Aug 31;12(4):e0089521. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00895-21. Epub 2021 Jul 27.


Legumes of the Medicago genus have a symbiotic relationship with the bacterium Sinorhizobium meliloti and develop root nodules housing large numbers of intracellular symbionts. Members of the nodule-specific cysteine-rich peptide (NCR) family induce the endosymbionts into a terminal differentiated state. Individual cationic NCRs are antimicrobial peptides that have the capacity to kill the symbiont, but the nodule cell environment prevents killing. Moreover, the bacterial broad-specificity peptide uptake transporter BacA and exopolysaccharides contribute to protect the endosymbionts against the toxic activity of NCRs. Here, we show that other S. meliloti functions participate in the protection of the endosymbionts; these include an additional broad-specificity peptide uptake transporter encoded by the yejABEF genes and lipopolysaccharide modifications mediated by lpsB and lpxXL, as well as rpoH1, encoding a stress sigma factor. Strains with mutations in these genes show a strain-specific increased sensitivity profile against a panel of NCRs and form nodules in which bacteroid differentiation is affected. The lpsB mutant nodule bacteria do not differentiate, the lpxXL and rpoH1 mutants form some seemingly fully differentiated bacteroids, although most of the nodule bacteria are undifferentiated, while the yejABEF mutants form hypertrophied but nitrogen-fixing bacteroids. The nodule bacteria of all the mutants have a strongly enhanced membrane permeability, which is dependent on the transport of NCRs to the endosymbionts. Our results suggest that S. meliloti relies on a suite of functions, including peptide transporters, the bacterial envelope structures, and stress response regulators, to resist the aggressive assault of NCR peptides in the nodule cells. IMPORTANCE The nitrogen-fixing symbiosis of legumes with rhizobium bacteria has a predominant ecological role in the nitrogen cycle and has the potential to provide the nitrogen required for plant growth in agriculture. The host plants allow the rhizobia to colonize specific symbiotic organs, the nodules, in large numbers in order to produce sufficient reduced nitrogen for the plants' needs. Some legumes, including Medicago spp., produce massively antimicrobial peptides to keep this large bacterial population in check. These peptides, known as NCRs, have the potential to kill the rhizobia, but in nodules, they rather inhibit the division of the bacteria, which maintain a high nitrogen-fixing activity. In this study, we show that the tempering of the antimicrobial activity of the NCR peptides in the Medicago symbiont Sinorhizobium meliloti is multifactorial and requires the YejABEF peptide transporter, the lipopolysaccharide outer membrane, and the stress response regulator RpoH1.

Keywords: Sinorhizobium meliloti; antimicrobial peptides; mechanisms of resistance; nitrogen fixation; symbiosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antimicrobial Peptides / genetics
  • Antimicrobial Peptides / metabolism*
  • Antimicrobial Peptides / pharmacology*
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial*
  • Medicago truncatula / chemistry*
  • Medicago truncatula / microbiology
  • Nitrogen Fixation
  • Root Nodules, Plant / microbiology
  • Sinorhizobium meliloti / drug effects*
  • Sinorhizobium meliloti / genetics
  • Sinorhizobium meliloti / metabolism*
  • Symbiosis


  • Antimicrobial Peptides