Plant cell surface receptors perceive carbohydrate signaling molecules and hereby establish communication with surrounding microbes. Genetic studies have identified two different classes of lysin motif receptor kinases as gatekeepers that together trigger the symbiotic pathway in plants; however, no structural or functional data of the perception mechanisms switching these receptors from resting state into activation is known. In this study, we use structural biology, biochemical, and genetic approaches to demonstrate how the NFP/NFR5 class of lipochitooligosaccharide (LCO) receptors discriminate bacterial symbionts based on a kinetic proofreading mechanism that controls receptor activation and signaling specificity. We show that the LCO binding site can be engineered to support symbiotic functions, which greatly advance future opportunities for receptor engineering in legumes and nonlegumes.

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