• Bradyrhizobium japonicum;
  • exploitation;
  • infection;
  • legume;
  • Lotus strigosus;
  • mutualism;
  • parasitism;
  • partner choice;
  • rhizobia;
  • sanctions


Host control mechanisms are thought to be critical for selecting against cheater mutants in symbiont populations. Here, we provide the first experimental test of a legume host’s ability to constrain the infection and proliferation of a native-occurring rhizobial cheater. Lotus strigosus hosts were experimentally inoculated with pairs of Bradyrhizobium strains that naturally vary in symbiotic benefit, including a cheater strain that proliferates in the roots of singly infected hosts, yet provides zero growth benefits. Within co-infected hosts, the cheater exhibited lower infection rates than competing beneficial strains and grew to smaller population sizes within those nodules. In vitro assays revealed that infection-rate differences among competing strains were not caused by variation in rhizobial growth rate or interstrain toxicity. These results can explain how a rapidly growing cheater symbiont – that exhibits a massive fitness advantage in single infections – can be prevented from sweeping through a beneficial population of symbionts.