Agron. Sustain. Dev.
Volume 27, Number 1, January-March 2007
Page(s) 59 - 68
Published online 25 January 2007
Agron. Sustain. Dev. 27 (2007) 59-68
DOI: 10.1051/agro:2006030

Symbiotic nitrogen fixation in legume nodules: process and signaling. A review

Neera Garg and Geetanjali

Department of Botany, Panjab University, Chandigarh - 160014, India

(Accepted 9 November 2006; published online 25 January 2007)

Abstract - The Green Revolution was accompanied by a huge increase in the application of fertilizers, particularly nitrogen. Recent studies indicate that a sizeable proportion of the human population depends on synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilizers to provide the 53 million t N that is harvested globally in food crops each year. Nitrogen fertilizers affect the balance of the global nitrogen cycle, pollute groundwater and increase atmospheric nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent "greenhouse" gas. The production of nitrogen fertilizer by industrial nitrogen fixation not only depletes our finite reserves of fossil fuels, but also generates large quantities of carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. The process of biological nitrogen fixation offers an economically attractive and ecologically sound means of reducing external nitrogen input and improving the quality and quantity of internal resources. Recent studies show that in irrigated cropping systems, legume N is generally less susceptible to loss processes than fertilizers. Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) has provided a number of useful paradigms for both basic and applied research. Establishing a fully functional symbiosis requires a successful completion of numerous steps that lead from recognition signals exchanged between the plant and bacteria to the differentiation and operation of root nodules, the plant organ in which nitrogen fixation takes place. The initial sensing of the two organisms by each other starts with the release of root exudates by the plant that include flavonoids and nutrients such as organic acids and amino acids. Flavonoids secreted by the host plant into the rhizosphere function as inducers of the rhizobial nod genes. nod gene induction results in the secretion of lipochitin oligosaccharides that are thought to bind to specific plant receptor kinases that contain LysM motifs, such as NFR1 and NFR5 in Lotus japonicus and LYK3 and LTK4 in Medicago truncatula. This initiates a complex signaling pathway involving calcium spiking in root hairs. The result is that the root hairs curl and trap the rhizobia, which then enter the root hair through tubular structures known as infection threads that are formed by the plant. The infection threads then grow into the developed nodule tissue. Ultimately, the invading bacteria are taken into the plant cell by a type of endocytosis in which they are surrounded by a plant-derived peribacteroid membrane (PBM). The resulting symbiosomes fill the plant cell cytoplasm and as plant and bacterial metabolism develops, the bacteria become mature bacteroids able to convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonium. To increase knowledge of this system of particular importance in sustainable agriculture, major emphasis should be laid on the basic research. More work is needed on the genes responsible in rhizobia and legumes, the structural chemical bases of rhizobia/legume communication, and signal transduction pathways responsible for the finely orchestrated induction of the symbiosis-specific genes involved in nodule development and nitrogen fixation. This review unfolds the various events involved in the progression of symbiosis.

Key words: flavonoids / nitrogen fixation / nod factors / Rhizobium / sustainable agriculture

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© INRA, EDP Sciences 2007