Reduction of N2 gas to ammonia in legume root nodules is a key component of sustainable agricultural systems. Root nodules are the result of a symbiosis between leguminous plants and bacteria called rhizobia. Both symbiotic partners play active roles in establishing successful symbiosis and nitrogen fixation: while root nodule development is mostly controlled by the plant, the rhizobia induce nodule formation, invade, and perform N2 fixation once inside the plant cells. Many bacterial genes involved in the rhizobia–legume symbiosis are known, and there is much interest in engineering the symbiosis to include major nonlegume crops such as corn, wheat, and rice. We sought to identify and combine a minimal bacterial gene complement necessary and sufficient for symbiosis. We analyzed a model rhizobium,
Sinorhizobium( Ensifer) meliloti, using a background strain in which the 1.35-Mb symbiotic megaplasmid pSymA was removed. Three regions representing 162 kb of pSymA were sufficient to recover a complete N2-fixing symbiosis with alfalfa, and a targeted assembly of this gene complement achieved high levels of symbiotic N2 fixation. The resulting gene set contained just 58 of 1,290 pSymA protein-coding genes. To generate a platform for future synthetic manipulation, the minimal symbiotic genes were reorganized into three discrete nod, nif, and fixmodules. These constructs will facilitate directed studies toward expanding the symbiosis to other plant partners. They also enable forward-type approaches to identifying genetic components that may not be essential for symbiosis, but which modulate the rhizobium’s competitiveness for nodulation and the effectiveness of particular rhizobia–plant symbioses.