Phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) is an important component of various receptor tyrosine kinase complexes in mammalian cells and a key enzyme required for cell division and vacuolar protein sorting in yeast. To our knowledge, this enzyme has not been characterized in plants. We report the cloning and characterization of soybean PI3K cDNAs and present evidence for the induction of a distinctive form of this enzyme specific to nodule organogenesis. Expression of the root form of PI3K is repressed during nodule organogenesis and is reinduced in mature nodules. Primer-extension results showed that the gene encoding the nodule form of PI3K is highly expressed in young (12-15 day old) root nodules in parallel with membrane proliferation but is repressed in mature nodules. The root form of the PI3K cDNA (SPI3K-5) encodes a peptide of 814 amino acids and the nodule form (SPI3K-1) encodes a peptide of 812 amino acids. Both cDNAs share 98% sequence identity in the coding region but differ in the noncoding regions. The polypeptides encoded by soybean PI3K cDNAs show significant sequence homology (50-60% similarity and 20-40% identity) to both PI3Ks and phosphatidylinositol 4-kinases from mammalian and yeast cells. Escherichia coli expressed soybean PI3K phosphorylated phosphatidylinositol specifically at the D-3 position of the inositol ring to generate phosphatidylinositol 3-phosphate. The temporal increase of a specific PI3K activity during membrane proliferation in young nodules suggests that PI3K plays a pivotal role in development of the peribacteroid membrane forming a subcellular compartment.