Stabilizing mechanisms in a legume-rhizobium mutualism

Katy D. Heath, Peter Tiffin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

141 Scopus citations


Preferential rewarding of more beneficial partners may stabilize mutualisms against the invasion of less beneficial, that is cheater, genotypes. Recent evidence suggests that both partner choice and sanctioning may play roles in preventing the invasion of less-beneficial rhizobia in legume-rhizobium mutualisms. The importance of these mechanisms in natural communities, however, remains unclear. We grew 12 Medicago truncatula maternal families with a mixture of three rhizobium strains from their native range for three plant generations and estimated the symbiotic benefits (nodule number and size) conferred to each rhizobium strain. In this experiment, the majority of M. truncatula genotypes formed more nodules with more beneficial rhizobium strains, providing evidence for adaptive partner choice. We also found that three generations of symbiosis resulted in an increase in the relative frequency of rhizobium strains that were most beneficial to plants - suggesting that partner choice affects rhizobium fitness. By contrast, we found no evidence that plants differentially rewarded rhizobia postnodulation via sanctioning leading to differences in nodule size. Taken together, our data suggest that plants have evolved to recognize beneficial rhizobial signals during the early stages of symbiosis, and that signaling between plants and rhizobia may be subject to coevolutionary pressures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)652-662
Number of pages11
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2009


  • Cheater
  • Honest signal
  • Partner choice
  • Plant-microbe
  • Sanctions
  • Symbiosis


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