Aspartate aminotransferase (AAT) is a key plant enzyme affecting nitrogen and carbon metabolism, particularly in legume root nodules and leaves of C4 species. To ascertain the molecular genetic characteristics and biochemical regulation of AAT, we have isolated a cDNA encoding the nodule-enhanced AAT (AAT-2) of alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) by screening a root nodule cDNA expression library with antibodies. Complementation of an Escherichia coli AAT mutant with the alfalfa nodule AAT-2 cDNA verified the identity of the clone. The deduced amino acid sequence of alfalfa AAT-2 is 53 and 47% identical to animal mitochondrial and cytosolic AATs, respectively. The deduced molecular mass of AAT-2 is 50,959 daltons, whereas the mass of purified AAT-2 is about 40 kilodaltons as determined by sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis, and the protein's N-terminal domain (amino acids 1-59) contains many of the characteristics of plastid-targeting peptides. We postulate that AAT-2 is localized to the plastid. Southern blot analysis suggests that AAT-2 is encoded by a small, multigene family. The expression of AAT-2 mRNA in nodules is severalfold greater than that in either leaves or roots. Northern and western blots showed that expression of AAT activity during effective nodule development is accompanied by a sevenfold increase in AAT-2 mRNA and a comparable increase in enzyme protein. By contrast, plant-controlled ineffective nodules express AAT-2 mRNA at much lower levels and have little to no AAT-2 enzyme protein. Expression of root nodule AAT-2 appears to be regulated by at least two events: the first is independent of nitrogenase activity; the second is associated with nodule effectiveness.