The biology and ecology of plant pathogenic bacteria have been studied almost exclusively in agricultural contexts. In contrast, for numerous human pathogens their biological activity in niches outside of medical contexts is well-known. Whereas there is increasing evidence that traits fostering survival in 'environmental' niches can be the basis for virulence factors of human pathogens, niches for plant pathogenic bacteria outside of plants or of agricultural settings have not been elucidated. Most phytopathogenic bacteria are not obligate parasites, some of them can be transported to altitudes of several kilometres, they are scrubbed from the atmosphere by rainfall, and thus they are presumably transported to and might survive in a wide range of habitats. We isolated Pseudomonas syringae from river epilithon (rock-attached biofilms composed of algae, diatoms, rotifers, bacteria and nematodes) at densities up to 6000 cells g-1in France and the USA, some in pristine settings where waters flowed directly from snow melt and had not passed through agricultural zones. These strains induced hypersensitivity in indicator plants (tobacco) suggesting the presence of functional pathogenicity systems, and many induced disease in 1-7 of the plant species tested and produced a syringomycin-like toxin. Strains also were resistant to some antibiotics used to control plant diseases but not to copper sulphate. Sequencing of the 16S rDNA of epilithon strains and of reference strains of P. syringae revealed that a genetic lineage containing the strains with the broadest host range was distributed across several continents. Is it likely that wide spread dissemination of P. syringae occurs via aerosols and precipitation. This work highlights our limited understanding of non-agricultural niches in the ecology and evolution of plant pathogenic bacteria, of their role in the development of agricultural epidemics both as sources of inoculum and as sources of novel traits that may enhance bacterial pathogenicity and fitness. © 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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