BACKGROUND: The nonexpressor of pathogenesis-related genes 1, NPR1 (also known as NIM1 and SAI1), is a key regulator of SA-mediated systemic acquired resistance (SAR) in Arabidopsis. In rice, the NPR1 homolog 1 (NH1) interacts with TGA transcriptional regulators and the Negative Regulator of Resistance (NRR) protein to modulate the SAR response. Though five NPR1 homologs (NHs) have been identified in rice, only NH1 and NH3 enhance immunity when overexpressed. To understand why NH1 and NH3, but not NH2, NH4, or NH5, contribute to the rice immune response, we screened TGA transcription factors and NRR-like proteins for interactions specific to NH1 and NH3. We also examined their co-expression patterns using publicly available microarray data. RESULTS: We tested five NHs, four NRR homologs (RHs), and 13 rice TGA proteins for pair-wise protein interactions using yeast two-hybrid (Y2H) and split YFP assays. A survey of 331 inter-family interactions revealed a broad, complex protein interaction network. To investigate preferred interaction partners when all three families of proteins were present, we performed a bridged split YFP assay employing YFPN-fused TGA, YFPC-fused RH, and NH proteins without YFP fusions. We found 64 tertiary interactions mediated by NH family members among the 120 sets we examined. In the yeast two-hybrid assay, each NH protein was capable of interacting with most TGA and RH proteins. In the split YFP assay, NH1 was the most prevalent interactor of TGA and RH proteins, NH3 ranked the second, and NH4 ranked the third. Based on their interaction with TGA proteins, NH proteins can be divided into two subfamilies: NH1, NH2, and NH3 in one family and NH4 and NH5 in the other.In addition to evidence of overlap in interaction partners, co-expression analyses of microarray data suggest a correlation between NH1 and NH3 expression patterns, supporting their common role in rice immunity. However, NH3 is very tightly co-expressed with RH1 and RH2, while NH1 is strongly, inversely co-expressed with RH proteins, representing a difference between NH1 and NH3 expression patterns. CONCLUSIONS: Our genome-wide surveys reveal that each rice NH protein can partner with many rice TGA and RH proteins and that each NH protein prefers specific interaction partners. NH1 and NH3 are capable of interacting strongly with most rice TGA and RH proteins, whereas NH2, NH4, and NH5 have weaker, limited interaction with TGA and RH proteins in rice cells. We have identified rTGA2.1, rTGA2.2, rTGA2.3, rLG2, TGAL2 and TGAL4 proteins as the preferred partners of NH1 and NH3, but not NH2, NH4, or NH5. These TGA proteins may play an important role in NH1- and NH3-mediated immune responses. In contrast, NH4 and NH5 preferentially interact with TGAL5, TGAL7, TGAL8 and TGAL9, which are predicted to be involved in plant development.