Extracellular lipo-oligosaccharides of Rhizobium, known as Nod factors, play a key role in the molecular signal exchange which leads to the specific nitrogen-fixing symbiotic association between the soil microbe and its host legume. The biological activity of Nod factors and their perception by the host plant during the earliest stages of the Rhizobium/legume interaction have been studied using transgenic alfalfa carrying a fusion between the promoter of the early nodulin gene MtENOD12 and the beta-glucuronidase (GUS) reporter gene. Histochemical staining has shown that GUS accumulates specifically in the differentiating root epidermis, prior to and during root hair emergence, within 2-3 h following the addition of purified Rhizobium meliloti Nod factors. This precocious transcriptional activation of the MtENOD12 gene, reminiscent of that observed after inoculation with intact Rhizobium, implies that the Nod factor signal can be perceived at a developmental stage preceding root hair formation. GUS activity can be detected following treatment with a wide range of R. meliloti Nod factor concentrations down to 10(-13) M, and furthermore, this rapid response to the bacterial elicitor appears to be non-systemic. Significantly, MtENOD12-GUS expression is not observed after inoculation with a R. meliloti nodH mutant which synthesizes exclusively non-sulphated Nod factors. Indeed purified Nod factors which lack the sulphate substituent are approximately 1000-fold less active than their sulphated counterparts. Thus, the triggering of ENOD12 transcription in the alfalfa root epidermis is a rapid molecular response which is subject to the same host-specificity determinant (Nod factor sulphation) that governs the interaction between alfalfa and its bacterial symbiont.