Rhizobium etli is a microsymbiont of plants of the genus Phaseolus. Using mass spectrometry we have identified the lipo-chitin oligosaccharides (LCOs) that are produced by R. etli strain CE3. They are N-acetylglucosamine pentasaccharides of which the non-reducing residue is N-methylated and N-acylated with cis-vaccenic acid (C18:1) or stearic acid (C18:0) and carries a carbamoyl group at C4. The reducing residue is substituted at the C6 position with O-acetylfucose. Analysis of their biological activity on the host plant Phaseolus vulgaris shows that these LCOs can elicit the formation of nodule primordia which develop to the stage where vascular bundles are formed. The formation of complete nodule structures, including an organized vascular tissue, is never observed. Considering the very close resemblance of the R. etli LCO structures to those of R. loti (I. M. López-Lara, J. D. J. van den Berg, J. E. Thomas Oates, J. Glushka, B. J. J. Lugtenberg, H. P. Spaink, Mol Microbiol 15: 627-638, 1995) we tested the ability of R. etli strains to nodulate various Lotus species and of R. loti to nodulate P. vulgaris. The results show that R. etli is indeed able to nodulate Lotus plants. However, several Lotus species are only nodulated when an additional flavonoid independent transcription activator (FITA) nodD gene is provided. Phaseolus plants can also be nodulated by R. loti bacteria, but only when the bacteria contain a FITA nodD gene. Apparently, the type of nod gene inducers secreted by the plants is the major basis for the separation of Phaseolus and Lotus into different cross inoculation groups.