Arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) symbioses are mutualistic associations between soil fungi and most vascular plants. Their association benefits the host plant by improving nutrition, mainly phosphorus nutrition, and by providing increased capability to cope with adverse conditions. In this study, we investigated the transcriptional changes triggered in rice leaves as a result of AM symbiosis, focusing on the relevance of the plant defence response. We showed that root colonization by the AM fungus Glomus intraradices is accompanied by the systemic induction of genes that play a regulatory role in the host defence response, such as OsNPR1, OsAP2, OsEREBP and OsJAmyb. Genes involved in signal transduction processes (OsDUF26 and OsMPK6) and genes that function in calcium-mediated signalling processes (OsCBP, OsCaM and OsCML4) are also up-regulated in leaves of mycorrhizal rice plants in the absence of pathogen infection. In addition, the mycorrhizal rice plants exhibit a stronger induction of defence marker genes [i.e. pathogenesis-related (PR) genes] in their leaves in response to infection by the blast fungus Magnaporthe oryzae. Evidence indicates that mycorrhizal rice plants show enhanced resistance to the rice blast fungus. Overall, these results suggest that the protective effect of the AM symbiosis in rice plants relies on both the systemic activation of defence regulatory genes in the absence of pathogen challenge and the priming for stronger expression of defence effector genes during pathogen infection. The possible mechanisms involved in the mycorrhiza-induced resistance to M. oryzae infection are discussed. © 2011 The Authors. Molecular Plant Pathology © 2011 BSPP and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.