Medicago genome sequence sheds new light on how plants evolved nitrogen-fixing symbioses

November 16, 2011
This is a magnified image of nodules on the root of Medicago. Nodules house the symbiotic bacteria key to the nitrogen fixation process. Credit: Andrew Davis, John Innes Centre

The genome of Medicago, a close relative of alfalfa and a long-established model for the study of legume biology, has been sequenced by an international team of scientists, capturing around 94 per cent of its genes.

The research gives new insights into the evolution of the Papilionoid subfamily of legumes, which includes peas, soybean and all legumes grown as crops.

Plants in this family can house and work with bacteria to provide them with nitrogen from the air. The new findings suggest this useful trait can be partly attributed to a genetic event 58 million years ago, when duplicate genes of the whole were created.

The duplication of genes allows new mutations and functions to occur, while maintaining the roles of original genes.

"The details of the genome shed new light on Medicago, the that will help unlock the workings of we hope within our lifetime," said Professor Giles Oldroyd from the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park.

"A whole appears to have played a crucial role in the dramatic radiation of papilionoid legumes," said director of the The Centre Professor Jane Rogers, also based on Norwich Research Park.

"This shaped their genomes and contributed to their success, enhancing their value to humans."

One outcome was the emergence of additional genes that went on to become specialised for functions related to the root nodule. This organ is formed by legumes to house symbiotic nitrogen-fixing rhizobial bacteria, which do the job of providing their hosts with a form nitrogen they can use while the provides the bacteria with sugars and proteins.

The new findings indicate that some important components for nodulation might have evolved from ancient genes and were then duplicated and added to 58 Mya. The capacity for interaction with and fungi is derived from ancient machinery that was added to following the whole genome duplication, leading to the complex relationship that benefits Medicago and other legumes today.

"Legume symbiosis with rhizobia is the largest source of natural, non-synthetic, nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture," said Professor Nevin Young from the University of Minnesota.

"We sequenced the Medicago genome primarily to learn about its evolution."

The scientists also found in the Medicago genome more NBS-LRR genes, a class of resistance genes, than in any other plant genome to date.

"This is potentially a useful resource to exploit," said Professor Oldroyd.

Explore further: Darwinian mystery may have been solved

More information: Journal paper: The Medicago Genome Provides Insight into the Evolution of Rhizobial Symbioses:

Related Stories

Darwinian mystery may have been solved

May 11, 2006

U.S. scientists may have solved Charles Darwin's "abominable mystery" of flowering plants' rapid evolution after they appeared 140 million years ago.

A new plant-bacterial symbiotic mechanism promising

July 16, 2007

The growth of most plants depends on the presence of sufficient amounts of nitrogen contained in the soil. However, a family of plants, the legumes, is partially free of this constraint thanks to its ability to live in association ...

Helping plants fertilize themselves

February 25, 2010

( -- A BYU researcher helped discover a cellular tool some plants use to fertilize themselves. This fundamental understanding is important in the effort to reduce the 88 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer used ...

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Nov 16, 2011
Some bright guy will eventually get the idea of cloning human beings and doubling the chromosome count. Bizarre? yes. Survivable? doubtful. But just remember if someday to see a 10 foot super human kicking in your door, you heard it here first!
5 / 5 (1) Nov 16, 2011
Whats interesting is how the legume drives the evolution of soil microbes to symbiosis. A group of scientists in France showed that by giving a pathogen nitrogen fixation genes, and reducing its pathogenicity, the pathogen will evolve to become a symbiont inside of the legume root system. The legume rhizome will selectively feed the microbes which can fix nitrogen - this way the legume picks out and 'breeds' bacteria capable of fixing nitrogen for it.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.