Sinorhizobium meliloti

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A Microbial Biorealm page on the genus Sinorhizobium meliloti


Higher order taxa

Bacteria; Proteobacteria; Alphaproteobacteria; Rhizobiales; Rhizobiazeae; Sinorhizobium

[Others may be used. Use NCBI link to find]


NCBI: Taxonomy

Sinorhizobium meliloti;

Description and significance

Sinorhizobium meliloti is a gram-negative bacterium. As are other Rhizobia, S. meliloti can be found as a normal, free-living microorganisms in the soil. However, it is for their nitrogen-fixing symbiotic relationships with legumes that S. meliloti are studied. S. meliloti cells detect substances particularly made up of amino and organic acids, released by the roots of plants. The cells are drawn toward root hairs that emerge from the roots and induce the root hair tips to curl up. There is a cytoplasmic bridge formed by the microtubules and the cytoplasm of the root cells. This bridge guides infection threads extending from the roots to the cortex of the bacterial cells. Finally, the S. meliloti cells enter the cytoplasm of the root cells through endocytosis. S. meliloti transform atmospheric nitrogen into a form that may be utilized by the host in which they reside. Also, the S. meliloti is significant in that it leaves behind excess nitrogen in the soil which may potentially reduce the need for fertilizers. The S. meliloti genome was isolated and sequenced from nodules and soil primarily from host plants such as the Medicago (alfalfa and perennial and annual medics), Melilotus (sweet clover), and Trigonella (fenugreek) species. The detailed study of S. meliloti and other Rhizobia will further inform microbiologists about how these bacteria colonize root surfaces of their host and what mechanisms make-up the complex rhizobium-legume symbiotic relationship.

Genome structure

S. meliloti is a fast growing Rhizobium that has a moderately small genome size of 6.7 Million base pairs. The genome is still quite complex and is made up of three circular elements of DNA, also known as replicons. One is a single chromosome 3.65 Mb long, while the other two are megaplasmids 1.68 Mb and 1.35 Mb long a piece. Each replicon contributes to a certain degree to the bacteria's symbiosis with the plant. The largest replicon is responsible for all the housekeeping genes of S. meliloti cells, in particular the genes responsible for metabolic pathways. Also, it carries the genes involved in plant interaction, responding to external stress, mobility, and chemotaxis. The second replicon, named pSymB, carries genes involved in nutrient uptake and effective invasion of the plant host. The third and smallest replicon, named pSymA, is responsible for the the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of the bacterium. All three chromosomal components have been sequenced by researchers from around the world.

Cell structure and metabolism

S. meliloti is an aerobic bacterium that can be found either living independently in soil or on the roots of leguminous plants. A single superoxide dismutase, coded for by the sodA gene, catalyses the formation of hydrogen peroxide and oxygen from superoxides. S. meliloti cells will encounter two strikingly different environments during their life time, the soil and the nodules formed on the roots of plants. In the soil there is a large abundance of manganese that the cell can use and undergo aerobiosis. However, in the nodules there is a very low concentration of free oxygen and manganese where as iron is abundant in this highly acidic environment. In such conditions, it is favorable for the S. meliloti cells to utilize an iron-substituted superoxide dismutatse. It is most probably because the S. meliloti cells transition from the aerobic cycle in the soil to the microaerobic cycle in the nodule environment that they developed a cambialistic superoxide dismutase.

S. meliloti and root cells of legumes share a symbiotic relationship in which the bacterial cells fix atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form by the root cells. In return the plant cells produce reduced carbon compounds that the S. meliloti can uptake as their carbon source. Among the several possible carbon sources available to the S. meliloti cells, dicarboxylic acids such as succinate, fumerate, and malate are preferred because of their involvment in nitrogen fixation. The oxidation of these compounds is essential for S. melioti cells to be able to fix atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form for leguminous plants. Using these compounds allows the bacterial cells to maintain a fast growth rate as well. The uptake of succinate in preference to other carbon sources is known as succinate-mediated catabolite repression and it varies from the catabolite repression in other bacteria. The exact molecular mechanisms of the succinate-mediated catabolite repression is yet to be cleared up. One key note to make about S. meliloti is that their carbon sources do not enter the Phosphate Transfer System because the cells have an incomplete PTS and thus enter through a transporter known as the DctA permease. The bacterial cells synthesizes several polysaccharides including glycogen, cyclic Beta-glucans, and exopolysaccharides. The biosynthetic pathways utilized by the cells include the Entner-Doudoroff and pentose-phosphate pathways with glucose 6-phosphate serving key enzymatic purposes.


As other soil bacteria, Sinorhizobium meliloti cells serve a significant role in the survival of many plant species, and they also make a large contribution to the environment as a whole. The atmosphere is made up of approximately 85% nitrogen and it is thus an essential element to most living organisms and their biological processes. However, nitrogen is present in the atmosphere in the form of dinitrogen (N2) which is unusable by most plants and animals. S. meliloti cells serve a very crucial role in the environment in that they form symbiotic relationships with leguminous plants and convert N2 into organic nitrogen. This mutual relationship benefits the plants by providing them a readily available source of a very essential nutrient.

Interestingly, S. meliloti is also capable of denitrification as well. Denitrification is the process of reducing nitrate and nitrite into N2 which is more abundant in the environment. S. meliloti is unique in that it is one of the first organisms to have a cluster of all four nitrogen oxide reductases (nap, nir, nor, nos) on the same chromosome. Denitrification can have hazardous effects such as a loss of biologically useful nitrogen, a build up of N2O as a byproduct which contributes to acidic rain, and a depletion of the ozone layer. However, denitrification conducted by S. meliloti cells can have positive effects as well if it is harnessed in the correct way. For example, the N2O produced by denitrification can serve as a green-house gas that traps heat. Also, microbial denitrification can contribute significantly to the purification of wastewater. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers have contributed to the pollution of ground water. This water is potentially hazardous to pregnant women and infants and thus scientists are considering using microbial denitrification in water treatment facilities to remove excess NO3.


Since Sinorhizobium meliloti is a nitrogen fixing soil bacteria, its primary purpose is to undergo reactions to assist plants. It does not have any pathogenic characteristics, rather it maintains a symbiotic relationship with leguminous plants and ultimately betters the environment. S. meliloti cells, however, do conduct denitrification in addition to nitrogen fixation, and this process has known side effects to the environment. As mentioned above, excess denitrification can deplete the environment of a usable nitrogen source, result in a build up of N2O which contributes to acidic rain, and deplete the ozone layer. Whether or not S. meliloti cells directly contribute negatively to the environment as a result of their denitrification still remains under investigation.

Application to Biotechnology

Does this organism produce any useful compounds or enzymes? What are they and how are they used?

Current Research

Enter summaries of the most recent research here--at least three required


[Sample reference] Takai, K., Sugai, A., Itoh, T., and Horikoshi, K. "Palaeococcus ferrophilus gen. nov., sp. nov., a barophilic, hyperthermophilic archaeon from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent chimney". International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. 2000. Volume 50. p. 489-500.

Edited by student of Rachel Larsen