Symbiotic interactions between rhizobia and legumes are largely controlled by reciprocal signal exchange. Legume roots excrete flavonoids which induce rhizobial nodulation genes to synthesize and excrete lipo-oligosaccharide Nod factors. In turn, Nod factors provoke deformation of the root hairs and nodule primordium formation. Normally, rhizobia enter roots through infection threads in markedly curled root hairs. If Nod factors are responsible for symbiosis-specific root hair deformation, they could also be the signal for entry of rhizobia into legume roots. We tested this hypothesis by adding, at inoculation, NodNGR-factors to signal-production-deficient mutants of the broad-host-range Rhizobium sp. NGR234 and Bradyrhizobium japonicum strain USDA110. Between 10(-7) M and 10(-6) M NodNGR factors permitted these NodABC- mutants to penetrate, nodulate and fix nitrogen on Vigna unguiculata and Glycine max, respectively. NodNGR factors also allowed Rhizobium fredii strain USDA257 to enter and fix nitrogen on Calopogonium caeruleum, a nonhost. Detailed cytological investigations of V. unguiculata showed that the NodABC- mutant NGR delta nodABC, in the presence of NodNGR factors, entered roots in the same way as the wild-type bacterium. Since infection threads were also present in the resulting nodules, we conclude that Nod factors are the signals that permit rhizobia to penetrate legume roots via infection threads.