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In legume-Rhizobium symbioses, specialised soil bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen in return for carbon. However, ineffective strains can arise, making discrimination essential. Discrimination can occur via partner choice, where legumes prevent ineffective strains from entering, or via sanctioning, where plants provide fewer resources. Several studies have inferred that legumes exercise partner choice, but the rhizobia compared were not otherwise isogenic. To test when and how plants discriminate ineffective strains we developed sets of fixing and non-fixing strains that differed only in the expression of nifH - essential for nitrogen fixation - and could be visualised using marker genes. We show that the plant is unable to select against the non-fixing strain at the point of entry, but that non-fixing nodules are sanctioned. We also used the technique to characterise mixed nodules (containing both a fixing and a non-fixing strain), whose frequency could be predicted using a simple diffusion model. We discuss that sanctioning is likely to evolve in preference to partner choice in any symbiosis where partner quality cannot be adequately assessed until goods or services are actively exchanged.

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Journal article


Sci Rep

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