The rhizobia-legume symbiosis is the most agriculturally significant source of naturally fixed nitrogen, accounting for almost 25% of all biologically available nitrogen. Rhizobia-legume compatibility restrictions impose limits on symbiotic nitrogen fixation. In many cases, the molecular basis for symbiotic compatibility is not fully understood. The signals required for establishing a symbiotic partnership between nitrogen-fixing bacteria (e.g. Sinorhizobium meliloti) and leguminous plants (e.g. Medicago truncatula) have been partially characterized at the molecular level. The first stage of successful root colonization is competitive occupation of the rhizosphere (which is poorly understood). Here, the bacteria introduce themselves as potential symbiotic partners through the secretion of glycolipid "Nod" factors. In response, the host facilitates a more exclusive mode of colonization by the formation of a root nodule – a new organ capable of hosting dense intracellular populations of symbiotic rhizobia for nitrogen fixation. This dissertation reports the exhaustive identification of S. meliloti genes that permit competitive colonization of the M. truncatula rhizosphere, and includes a mechanistic study of one particular bacterial signaling pathway that is crucial for both rhizosphere colonization and nodulation. I have made use of Tn-seq technology, which relies on deep sequencing of large transposon mutant libraries to monitor S. meliloti genotypes that increase or decrease in relative abundance after competition in the rhizosphere. This work included the collaborative development of a new computational pipeline for performing Tn-seq analysis. Our analysis implicates a large ensemble of bacterial genes and pathways promoting rhizosphere colonization, provides hints about how the host plant shapes this environment, and opens the door for mechanistic studies about how changes in the rhizosphere are sensed and interpreted by the microbial community. Notable among these sensory pathways is a three-protein signaling system, consisting of FeuQ, FeuP, and FeuN, which are important for both rhizosphere colonization and nodule invasion by S. meliloti. The membrane-bound sensor kinase FeuQ can either positively or negatively influence downstream transcription of target genes by modulating the phosphorylation state of the transcriptional activator FeuP. FeuN, a small periplasmic protein, inhibits the positive mode of FeuPQ signaling by its direct interaction with the extracellular region of FeuQ. FeuN is essential for S. meliloti viability, underscoring the vital importance of controlling the activity of downstream genes. In summary, I have employed several powerful genetic, genomic, computational, and biochemical approaches to uncover a network of genes and pathways that coordinate root colonization and nodulation functions.



College and Department

Life Sciences; Microbiology and Molecular Biology



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rhizosphere colonization, nitrogen fixation, Tn-seq, two-component signaling



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Microbiology Commons