Three soft rot erwinias, Erwinia carotovora ssp. carotovora, E. carotovora ssp. atroseptica and E. chrysanthemi are associated with potatoes causing tuber soft rot and blackleg (stem rot). Latent infection of tubers and stems is widespread. As opportunistic pathogens, the bacteria tend to cause disease when potato resistance is impaired. Pathogenesis or disease development in potato tubers and stems is discussed in terms of the interaction between pathogen, host and environment, microbial competition and recent findings on the molecular basis of pathogenicity. Emphasis is placed on the role of free water and anaerobiosis in weakening tuber resistance and in providing nutrient for erwinias to multiply. Blackleg symptoms are expressed when erwinias predominate in rotting mother tubers, invade the stems and multiply in xylem vessels under favourable weather conditions. Soft rot erwinias tend to out-compete other bacteria in tuber rots because of their ability to produce larger quantities of a wider range of cell wall-degrading enzymes. However, despite extensive studies on their induction, regulation and secretion, little is known about the precise role of the different enzymes in pathogenesis. The putative role of quorum-sensing regulation of these enzymes in disease development is evaluated. The role certain pathogenicity-related characters, including motility, adhesion, siderophores, detoxifying systems and the hrp gene complex, common to most bacteria including symbionts and saprophytes, could play in latent and active infections is also discussed.