Nodulation (nod) gene expression in Rhizobium meliloti requires plant inducers and the activating protein product of the nodD gene. We have examined three genes in R. meliloti which have nodD activity and sequence homology. These three nodD genes are designated nodD1, nodD2 and nodD3, and have distinctive properties. The nodD1 gene product activates expression of the nodABC operon, as measured by a nodC-lacZ fusion or by transcript analysis, in the presence of crude seed or plant wash or the inducer, luteolin. The nodD3 gene product can cause a high basal (uninduced) level of nodC-lacZ expression and nodABC transcripts which is relatively unaffected by inducers. The effect of nodD3 is dependent on the presence of another gene, syrM (symbiotic regulator). By primer extension analysis we determined that the transcription start site is the same for nodD1 plus luteolin or nodD3-syrM mediated expression of nodA and nodH mRNAs. syrM also enhances the expression of another symbiotically important trait, production of extracellular polysaccharide. This regulatory effect of syrM requires locus syrA, which is linked to nodD3 and syrM. The syrM-syrA mediated increase in polysaccharide production requires at least some of the previously identified exo genes and may be a parallel regulatory event to the syrM-nodD3 control of nod promoters.