The lipo-chitin (LCO) nodulation signal (nod signal) purified from Bradyrhizobium japonicum induced nodule primordia on soybean (i.e. Glycine soja) roots. These primordia were characterized by a bifurcated vascular connection, cortical cell division, and the accumulation of mRNA of the early nodulin gene, ENOD40. A chemically synthesized LCO identical in structure to the Nod signal purified from B. japonicum cultures showed the same activity when inoculated on to soybean roots. Surprisingly, synthetic LCO or chitin pentamer, inactive in inducing root hair curling (HAD) or cortical cell division (NOI) in G. soja, induced the transient accumulation of ENOD40 mRNA. In roots inoculated with such LCO, ENOD40 mRNA was abundant at 40 h after inoculation but decreased to the background levels 6 days after inoculation. In contrast, nod signals active in inducing HAD and NOI induced high levels of ENOD40 accumulation at 40 h and 6 days after inoculation. In situ hybridization analysis showed that ENOD40 mRNA accumulated in the pericycle of the vascular bundle at 24 h after root inoculation with nod signal. At 6 days post-inoculation with nod signal, ENOD40 expression was seen in dividing subepidermal cortical cells. These results provide morphological and molecular evidence that nodule induction in soybean in response to purified or synthetic nod signal is similar, if not identical, to nodule formation induced by bacterial inoculation. Surprisingly, ENOD40 mRNA accumulation occurs in response to non-specific chitin signals. This suggests that, in the case of ENOD40, nodulation specificity is not determined at the level of initial gene expression.