A mutant of Rhizobium meliloti, 4R3, which is unable to grow on aspartate has been isolated. The defect is specific to aspartate utilization, since 4R3 is not an auxotroph and grows as well as its parent strain on other carbon and nitrogen sources. The defect was correlated with an inability to fix nitrogen within nodules formed on alfalfa. Transport of aspartate into the mutant cells was found to be normal. Analysis of enzymes involved in aspartate catabolism showed a significantly lower level of aspartate aminotransferase activity in cell extracts of 4R3 than in the wild type. Two unrelated regions identified from a genomic cosmid bank each complemented the aspartate catabolism and symbiotic defects in 4R3. One of the cosmids was found to encode an aspartate aminotransferase enzyme and resulted in restoration of aspartate aminotransferase activity in the mutant. Analysis of the region cloned in this cosmid by transposon mutagenesis showed that mutations within this region generate the original mutant phenotypes. The second type of cosmid was found to encode an aromatic aminotransferase enzyme and resulted in highly elevated levels of aromatic aminotransferase activity. This enzyme apparently compensated for the mutation by its ability to partially utilize aspartate as a substrate. These findings demonstrate that R. meliloti contains an aspartate aminotransferase activity required for symbiotic nitrogen fixation and implicate aspartate as an essential substrate for bacteria in the nodule.