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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Adaptive evolution of the symbiotic gene NORK is not correlated with shifts of rhizobial specificity in the genus Medicago

Stéphane De Mita13*, Sylvain Santoni2, Joëlle Ronfort2 and Thomas Bataillon12

Author Affiliations

1 UMR 1097 Diversité et Adaptation des Plantes Cultivées – INRA Montpellier, France

2 Bioinformatic Research Center – Institute of Biology, Section of Genetics and Ecology, University of Aarhus, Aarhus, Denmark

3 Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 8128, 6700 ET Wageningen, The Netherlands

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:210  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-210

Published: 6 November 2007



The NODULATION RECEPTOR KINASE (NORK) gene encodes a Leucine-Rich Repeat (LRR)-containing receptor-like protein and controls the infection by symbiotic rhizobia and endomycorrhizal fungi in Legumes. The occurrence of numerous amino acid changes driven by directional selection has been reported in this gene, using a limited number of messenger RNA sequences, but the functional reason of these changes remains obscure. The Medicago genus, where changes in rhizobial associations have been previously examined, is a good model to test whether the evolution of NORK is influenced by rhizobial interactions.


We sequenced a region of 3610 nucleotides (encoding a 392 amino acid-long region of the NORK protein) in 32 Medicago species. We confirm that positive selection in NORK has occurred within the Medicago genus and find that the amino acid positions targeted by selection occur in sites outside of solvent-exposed regions in LRRs, and other sites in the N-terminal region of the protein. We tested if branches of the Medicago phylogeny where changes of rhizobial symbionts occurred displayed accelerated rates of amino acid substitutions. Only one branch out of five tested, leading to M. noeana, displays such a pattern. Among other branches, the most likely for having undergone positive selection is not associated with documented shift of rhizobial specificity.


Adaptive changes in the sequence of the NORK receptor have involved the LRRs, but targeted different sites than in most previous studies of LRR proteins evolution. The fact that positive selection in NORK tends not to be associated to changes in rhizobial specificity indicates that this gene was probably not involved in evolving rhizobial preferences. Other explanations (e.g. coevolutionary arms race) must be tested to explain the adaptive evolution of NORK.