We present a model for the metabolic coupling between rhizobia and plant cell in the nitrogen-fixing legume root nodules. The symbiosome, an organelle-like structure formed by the modified rhizobia (the bacteroids) enclosed by a plant cell derived peribacteroid membrane, is an unique structure in which two energized membranes are closely packed: the inner bacteroid membrane and the peribacteroid membrane that possesses an ATPase proton pump. The model is based on the following points: (i) The permeability for hydrogen ions of the outer membrane of the rhizobia. (ii) The reversibility of the ATPase proton pump of the peribacteroid membrane [Szafran, M. M. and Haaker, H. (1995) Plant Physiol. 108, 1227–1232]. (iii) The relative affinites for oxygen of the bacteroid and plant mitochondria terminal oxidases, and the prevailing oxygen concentration inside the nodule, which results in aerobic metabolism for the bacteroid, but in quite fermentative catabolism for the host plant cell. We propose that the bacteroid can transiently supply free energy to the plant cell in the form of protonmotive force by the movement of hydrogen ions from the bacteroid periplasmic space to the plant cytoplasm through the peribacteroid membrane ATPase. The proposed hydrogen ion flux could be dependent on the phosphorylation potential in both the plant cell cytoplasm and the bacteroid, and the simultaneous ion movements to avoid the development of opposite Δψ. It could be important in situations of transient ATP depletion inside plant cell, which involves the block of ammonia assimilation and, subsequently, the inhibition of bacteroid nitrogenase.

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