Rhizobia are Gram-negative bacteria that can exist either as free-living bacteria or as nitrogen-fixing symbionts inside root nodules of leguminous plants. The composition of the rhizobial outer surface, containing a variety of polysaccharides, plays a significant role in the adaptation of these bacteria in both habitats. Among rhizobial polymers, exopolysaccharide (EPS) is indispensable for the invasion of a great majority of host plants which form indeterminate-type nodules. Various functions are ascribed to this heteropolymer, including protection against environmental stress and host defense, attachment to abiotic and biotic surfaces, and in signaling. The synthesis of EPS in rhizobia is a multi-step process regulated by several proteins at both transcriptional and post-transcriptional levels. Also, some environmental factors (carbon source, nitrogen and phosphate starvation, flavonoids) and stress conditions (osmolarity, ionic strength) affect EPS production. This paper discusses the recent data concerning the function of the genes required for EPS synthesis and the regulation of this process by several environmental signals. Up till now, the synthesis of rhizobial EPS has been best studied in two species, Sinorhizobium meliloti
and Rhizobium leguminosarum.
The latest data indicate that EPS synthesis in rhizobia undergoes very complex hierarchical regulation, in which proteins engaged in quorum sensing and the regulation of motility genes also participate. This finding enables a better understanding of the complex processes occurring in the rhizosphere which are crucial for successful colonization and infection of host plant roots.