Quorum sensing (QS) in vitro controls production of plant cell wall degrading enzymes (PCWDEs) and other virulence factors in the soft rotting enterobacterial plant pathogen Pectobacterium atrosepticum (Pba). Here, we demonstrate the genome-wide regulatory role of QS in vivo during the Pba–potato interaction, using a Pba-specific microarray. We show that 26% of the Pba genome exhibited differential transcription in a QS (expI-) mutant, compared to the wild-type, suggesting that QS may make a greater contribution to pathogenesis than previously thought. We identify novel components of the QS regulon, including the Type I and II secretion systems, which are involved in the secretion of PCWDEs; a novel Type VI secretion system (T6SS) and its predicted substrates Hcp and VgrG; more than 70 known or putative regulators, some of which have been demonstrated to control pathogenesis and, remarkably, the Type III secretion system and associated effector proteins, and coronafacoyl-amide conjugates, both of which play roles in the manipulation of plant defences. We show that the T6SS and a novel potential regulator, VirS, are required for full virulence in Pba, and propose a model placing QS at the apex of a regulatory hierarchy controlling the later stages of disease progression in Pba. Our findings indicate that QS is a master regulator of phytopathogenesis, controlling multiple other regulators that, in turn, co-ordinately regulate genes associated with manipulation of host defences in concert with the destructive arsenal of PCWDEs that manifest the soft rot disease phenotype.
Many Gram-negative bacteria use a population density-dependent regulatory mechanism called quorum sensing (QS) to control the production of virulence factors during infection. In the bacterial plant pathogen Pectobacterium atrosepticum (formerly Erwinia carotovora subsp. atroseptica), an important model for QS, this mechanism regulates production of enzymes that physically attack the host plant cell wall. This study used a whole genome microarray-based approach to investigate the entire QS regulon during plant infection. Results demonstrate that QS regulates a much wider set of essential virulence factors than was previously appreciated. These include virulence factors similar to those in other plant and animal pathogens that have not previously been associated with QS, e.g., a Type VI secretion system (and its potential substrates), shown for the first time to be required for virulence in a plant pathogen; and the plant toxin coronafacic acid, known in other pathogens to play a role in manipulating plant defences. This study provides the first evidence that Pectobacterium may target host defences simultaneously with a physical attack on the plant cell wall. Moreover, the study demonstrates that a wide range of previously known and unknown virulence regulators lie within the QS regulon, revealing it to be the master regulator of virulence.