In the nitrogen-fixing root-nodule symbiosis of Rhizobium leguminosarum biovar viciae and its host plants pea and vetch, the bacteria enter one root cortical cell after another via a tip-growing structure, the infection thread. Rhizobial Nod (nodulation) factors induce the formation of preinfection thread structures (Van Brussel, A.A.N., R. Bakhuizen, P.C. van Spronsen, H.P. Spaink, T. Tak, B.J.J. Lugtenberg, J.W. Kijne, Science 257, 70-72 (1992)), but formation of infection threads requires the presence of bacterial cells. Passing of an infection thread from cell to cell requires local cell wall degradation. We compared at the ultrastructural level local cell wall changes in the outer root cortex of pea and vetch related to preinfection thread formation and infection thread formation, respectively. Cell wall modifications in the outer periclinal walls of root cortical cells induced by Nod factors appeared to be similar to those induced by rhizobia. These modifications take place opposite cytoplasmic bridges and are probably related to induction of tip growth. However, complete cell wall degradation was never observed in the absence of rhizobia. We propose a two-step cell wall degradation process for infection thread formation. The first step is a local cell wall modification by plant enzymes, induced by rhizobial Nod factors. The second step is complete cell wall degradation in the presence of rhizobia.