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Rhizobial Plasmids That Cause Impaired Symbiotic Nitrogen Fixation and Enhanced Host Invasion

August 2012 , Volume 25 , Number  8
Pages  1,026 - 1,033

Matthew B. Crook,1 Daniel P. Lindsay,1 Matthew B. Biggs,1 Joshua S. Bentley,1 Jared C. Price,2 Spencer C. Clement,2 Mark J. Clement,2 Sharon R. Long,3 and Joel S. Griffitts1

1Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602, U.S.A.; 2Department of Computer Science, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602, U.S.A.; 3Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, U.S.A.

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Accepted 13 April 2012.

The genetic rules that dictate legume-rhizobium compatibility have been investigated for decades, but the causes of incompatibility occurring at late stages of the nodulation process are not well understood. An evaluation of naturally diverse legume (genus Medicago) and rhizobium (genus Sinorhizobium) isolates has revealed numerous instances in which Sinorhizobium strains induce and occupy nodules that are only minimally beneficial to certain Medicago hosts. Using these ineffective strain-host pairs, we identified gain-of-compatibility (GOC) rhizobial variants. We show that GOC variants arise by loss of specific large accessory plasmids, which we call HR plasmids due to their effect on symbiotic host range. Transfer of HR plasmids to a symbiotically effective rhizobium strain can convert it to incompatibility, indicating that HR plasmids can act autonomously in diverse strain backgrounds. We provide evidence that HR plasmids may encode machinery for their horizontal transfer. On hosts in which HR plasmids impair N fixation, the plasmids also enhance competitiveness for nodule occupancy, showing that naturally occurring, transferrable accessory genes can convert beneficial rhizobia to a more exploitative lifestyle. This observation raises important questions about agricultural management, the ecological stability of mutualisms, and the genetic factors that distinguish beneficial symbionts from parasites.

© 2012 The American Phytopathological Society