BACKGROUND: Lateral roots are formed at regular intervals along the main root by recurrent specification of founder cells. To date, the mechanism by which branching of the root system is controlled and founder cells become specified remains unknown.RESULTS: Our study reports the identification of the auxin regulatory components and their target gene, GATA23, which control lateral root founder cell specification. Initially, a meta-analysis of lateral root-related transcriptomic data identified the GATA23 transcription factor. GATA23 is expressed specifically in xylem pole pericycle cells before the first asymmetric division and is correlated with oscillating auxin signaling maxima in the basal meristem. Also, functional studies revealed that GATA23 controls lateral root founder cell identity. Finally, we show that an Aux/IAA28-dependent auxin signaling mechanism in the basal meristem controls GATA23 expression.CONCLUSIONS: We have identified the first molecular components that control lateral root founder cell identity in the Arabidopsis root. These include an IAA28-dependent auxin signaling module in the basal meristem region that regulates GATA23 expression and thereby lateral root founder cell specification and root branching patterns.