Six cultivars of lucerne (Medicago sativa L.) were grown in all possible combinations with eight strains of Rhizobium meliloti in order to assess genetic variation in symbiotic nitrogen fixation. Host genotype and Rhizobium genotype effects on nitrogen fixation were respectively 4.8% and 21.0% of total phenotypic variance. Genetic variation due to host cultivar × Rhizobium strain interactions accounted for a further 6.0% of phenotypic variance. The results indicated low heritability of general symbiotic effectiveness in the host with interaction effects being large enough to suggest that plant performance may be unpredictable with populations of R. meliloti in field soils. Joint regression analysis showed that about 50% of the interactive variation could be explained by generalized differences in the sensitivity of cultivars to alterations in the genotype of Rhizobium strains. One cultivar, Siriver, was relatively insentitive to changes in the Rhizobium genotype whilst still maintaining high average yield. The implications of the results for lucerne breeding are discussed.