Hopanoids Confer Robustness to Physicochemical Variability in the Niche of the Plant Symbiont Bradyrhizobium diazoefficiens

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review



Rhizobia are a group of bacteria that increase soil nitrogen content through symbiosis with legume plants. The soil and symbiotic host are potentially stressful environments, and the soil will likely become even more stressful as the climate changes. Many rhizobia within the Bradyrhizobium clade, like Bradyrhizobium diazoefficiens, possess the genetic capacity to synthesize hopanoids, steroid-like lipids similar in structure and function to cholesterol. Hopanoids are known to protect against stresses relevant to the niche of B. diazoefficiens. Paradoxically, mutants unable to synthesize the extended class of hopanoids participate in symbioses with success similar to that of the wild type, despite being delayed in root nodule initiation. Here, we show that in B. diazoefficiens, the growth defects of extended-hopanoid-deficient mutants can be at least partially compensated for by the physicochemical environment, specifically, by optimal osmotic and divalent cation concentrations. Through biophysical measurements of lipid packing and membrane permeability, we show that extended hopanoids confer robustness to environmental variability. These results help explain the discrepancy between previous in-culture and in planta results and indicate that hopanoids may provide a greater fitness advantage to rhizobia in the variable soil environment than the more controlled environments within root nodules. To improve the legume-rhizobium symbiosis through either bioengineering or strain selection, it will be important to consider the full life cycle of rhizobia, from soil to symbiosis. IMPORTANCE Rhizobia, such as B. diazoefficiens, play an important role in the nitrogen cycle by making nitrogen gas bioavailable through symbiosis with legume plants. As climate change threatens soil health, this symbiosis has received increased attention as a more sustainable source of soil nitrogen than the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process. Efforts to use rhizobia as biofertilizers have been effective; however, long-term integration of rhizobia into the soil community has been less successful. This work represents a small step toward improving the legume-rhizobium symbiosis by identifying a cellular component - hopanoid lipids - that confers robustness to environmental stresses rhizobia are likely to encounter in soil microenvironments as sporadic desiccation and flooding events become more common.


Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0044221
JournalJournal of bacteriology
Issue number7
Early online date3 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2022

External IDs

Scopus 85134412209
Mendeley 9c700f01-b46d-390f-92e5-f5b24154abbe
PubMed 35657706
WOS 000809029400001


Sustainable Development Goals


  • Bradyrhizobia, climate change, hopanoids, osmotic stress, robustness, soil microbiology, Symbiosis, Lipids, Nitrogen, Fabaceae/microbiology, Bradyrhizobium/genetics, Rhizobium/genetics, Soil, Root Nodules, Plant/microbiology, Nitrogen Fixation, bradyrhizobia

Library keywords