Department of Biological Sciences, 371 Serra Mall, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-5020, U.S.A.
In the Rhizobium-legume symbiosis, compatible partners recognize each other through an exchange of signals. Plant inducers act together with bacterial transcriptional activators, the NodD proteins, to regulate the expression of bacterial biosynthetic nodulation (nod) genes. These genes direct the synthesis of a lipochito-oligosaccharide signal called Nod factor (NF). NFs elicit an early host response, root hair calcium spiking, that is initiated in root hair cells within 15 min of NF or live Rhizobium inoculation. We used calcium spiking as an assay to compare two closely related strains of Sinorhizobium meliloti, Rm1021 and Rm2011, derived from the same field isolate. We found that the two strains show a kinetic difference in the calcium spiking assay: Rm1021 elicits calcium spiking in host root hairs as rapidly as purified NF, whereas Rm2011 shows a significant delay. This difference can be overcome by raising expression levels of either the NodD transcriptional activators or GroEL, a molecular chaperone that affects expression of the biosynthetic nod genes. We further demonstrate that the delay in triggering calcium spiking exhibited by Rm2011 is correlated with a reduced amount of nod gene expression compared with Rm1021. Therefore, calcium spiking is a useful tool in detecting subtle differences in bacterial gene expression that affect the early stages of the Rhizobium-legume symbiosis.