Decoupled genomic elements and the evolution of partner quality in nitrogen-fixing rhizobia

Benjamin R. Gordon, Christie R. Klinger, Dylan J. Weese, Jennifer A. Lau, Patricia V. Burke, Bryn T.M. Dentinger, Katy D. Heath

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding how mutualisms evolve in response to a changing environment will be critical for predicting the long-term impacts of global changes, such as increased N (nitrogen) deposition. Bacterial mutualists in particular might evolve quickly, thanks to short generation times and the potential for independent evolution of plasmids through recombination and/or HGT (horizontal gene transfer). In a previous work using the legume/rhizobia mutualism, we demonstrated that long-term nitrogen fertilization caused the evolution of less-mutualistic rhizobia. Here, we use our 63 previously isolated rhizobium strains in comparative phylogenetic and quantitative genetic analyses to determine the degree to which variation in partner quality is attributable to phylogenetic relationships among strains versus recent genetic changes in response to N fertilization. We find evidence of distinct evolutionary relationships between chromosomal and pSym genes, and broad similarity between pSym genes. We also find that nifD has a unique evolutionary history that explains much of the variation in partner quality, and suggest MoFe subunit interaction sites in the evolution of less-mutualistic rhizobia. These results provide insight into the mechanisms behind the evolutionary response of rhizobia to long-term N fertilization, and we discuss the implications of our results for the evolution of the mutualism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1317-1327
Number of pages11
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016


  • Cheating
  • Mutualism
  • Nitrogen deposition
  • Partner quality
  • Rhizobium
  • Symbiosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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