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Summary

Rhizobium leguminosarum biovar viciae strain 3841 is a motile alpha-proteobacterium that can establish a nitrogen-fixing symbiosis within the roots of pea plants. In order to determine the contribution of chemotaxis to the lifestyle of R. leguminosarum, we have characterized the function of two chemotaxis gene clusters (che1 and che2) in controlling motility behaviour. We have found that both chemotaxis gene clusters modulate the motility swimming bias of R. leguminosarum cells and that the che1 cluster is the major pathway controlling swimming bias and chemotaxis. The che2 cluster also contributes to swimming bias, but has a minor effect on chemotaxis. Using competitive nodulation assays, we have demonstrated that a functional che1 cluster, but not the che2 cluster, promotes competitive nodulation of the peas. This finding implies that the environmental cue(s) triggering chemotaxis of R. leguminosarum bv. viciae cells towards the roots of pea and facilitating colonization are likely to be processed through the che1 cluster despite the contribution of both che clusters to swimming behaviour. A phylogenetic analysis of the distribution of che1 and che2 orthologues in the alpha-proteobacteria together with our results allow us to propose that che1 homologues are major controllers of chemotaxis and host association in the Rhizobiaceae.