Nitrogen-fixing root nodule symbioses (RNS) occur in two major forms—Actinorhiza and legume-rhizobium symbiosis—which differ in bacterial partner, intracellular infection pattern, and morphogenesis. The phylogenetic restriction of nodulation to eurosid angiosperms indicates a common and recent evolutionary invention, but the molecular steps involved are still obscure. In legumes, at least seven genes—including the symbiosis receptor-kinase gene SYMRK—are essential for the interaction with rhizobia bacteria and for the Arbuscular Mycorrhiza (AM) symbiosis with phosphate-acquiring fungi, which is widespread in occurrence and believed to date back to the earliest land plants. We show that SYMRK is also required for Actinorhiza symbiosis of the cucurbit Datisca glomerata with actinobacteria of the genus Frankia, revealing a common genetic basis for both forms of RNS. We found that SYMRK exists in at least three different structural versions, of which the shorter forms from rice and tomato are sufficient for AM, but not for functional endosymbiosis with bacteria in the legume Lotus japonicus. Our data support the idea that SYMRK sequence evolution was involved in the recruitment of a pre-existing signalling network from AM, paving the way for the evolution of intracellular root symbioses with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
As an adaptation to nutrient limitations in terrestrial ecosystems, most plants form Arbuscular Mycorrhiza (AM), which is a symbiotic relationship between phosphate-delivering fungi and plant roots that dates back to the earliest land plants. More recently, a small group including the legumes and close relatives has evolved the ability to accommodate nitrogen-fixing bacteria intracellularly. The resulting symbiosis is manifested by the formation of specialized root organs, the nodules, and comes in two forms: the interaction of legumes with rhizobia, and the more widespread Actinorhiza symbiosis of mostly woody plants with Frankia bacteria. The symbiosis receptor kinase SYMRK acts in a signalling pathway that legume plants require to trigger the development of nodules and the uptake of fungi or bacteria into their root cells. Here we show that the induction of Actinorhiza nodulation also relies on SYMRK, consistent with the idea that both types of nodulation evolved by recruiting common signalling genes from the pre-existing AM program. We observed that SYMRK from different land plant lineages differs significantly in exon composition, with a “full-length” version in the nodulating clade and shorter SYMRK genes in plants outside this lineage. Only the most complete SYMRK version was fully functional in nodulation, suggesting this gene played a central role in the recruitment event associated with the evolution of intracellular root symbioses with bacteria.
Root nodule symbioses with nitrogen-fixing bacteria provide many plants with a source of nitrogen. This study uncovers evidence that changes in the gene SYMRK were involved in the evolution of this important biological innovation.