Most higher plant species can enter a root symbiosis with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, in which plant carbon is traded for fungal phosphate. This is an ancient symbiosis, which has been detected in fossils of early land plants. In contrast, the nitrogen-fixing root nodule symbioses of plants with bacteria evolved more recently, and are phylogenetically restricted to the rosid I clade of plants. Both symbioses rely on partially overlapping genetic programmes. We have identified the molecular basis for this convergence by cloning orthologous SYMRK ('symbiosis receptor-like kinase') genes from Lotus and pea, which are required for both fungal and bacterial recognition. SYMRK is predicted to have a signal peptide, an extracellular domain comprising leucine-rich repeats, a transmembrane and an intracellular protein kinase domain. Lotus SYMRK is required for a symbiotic signal transduction pathway leading from the perception of microbial signal molecules to rapid symbiosis-related gene activation. The perception of symbiotic fungi and bacteria is mediated by at least one common signalling component, which could have been recruited during the evolution of root nodule symbioses from the already existing arbuscular mycorrhiza symbiosis.