Pantoea stewartii subsp. stewartii: lessons learned from a xylem-dwelling pathogen of sweet corn




Pantoea stewartii subsp. stewartii is a Gram-negative enteric bacterium that primarily infects sweet corn. Studies of this bacterium have provided useful insight into how xylem-dwelling bacteria establish themselves and incite disease in their hosts. Pantoea stewartii subsp. stewartii is a remarkable bacterial system for laboratory studies because of its relative ease of propagation and genetic manipulation, and the fact that it appears to employ a minimal number of pathogenicity mechanisms. In addition, P. stewartii subsp. stewartii produces copious amounts of its quorum sensing (QS) signal, acyl-homoserine lactone (AHL), making it an excellent organism for studying QS-controlled gene regulation in a plant-pathogenic bacterium. In fact, P. stewartii subsp. stewartii has become the microbial paradigm for QS control of gene expression by both repression and activation via a QS regulator that binds DNA in the absence and dissociates in the presence of the signal ligand. Moreover, P. stewartii subsp. stewartii is a member of the Enterobacteriaceae, and lessons learned from its interaction with plants may be extrapolated to other plant-associated enterics, such as Erwinia, Dickeya and Pectobacterium spp., or enteric human pathogens associated with plants, such as Escherichia coli and Salmonella spp.

Taxonomy: Bacteria; Gammaproteobacteria; family Enterobacteriaceae; genus Pantoea; species stewartii (Mergaert et al., 1993).

Microbiological properties: Gram-negative, motile, yellow pigmented, mucoid, facultative anaerobe.

Host range:Pantoea stewartii subsp. stewartii (Smith, 1898) Dye causes Stewart's wilt of corn (Zea mays). Early-maturing sweet corn varieties and some elite inbred maize lines are particularly susceptible.

Disease symptoms: There are two major phases of Stewart's wilt disease: (i) wilt and (ii) leaf blight. The wilt phase occurs when young seedlings are infected with P. stewartii subsp. stewartii (Fig. 1A). Water-soaked lesions first appear on the young expanding leaves and, later, seedlings may become severely wilted (Fig. 1B). The plants usually die when infected at the seedling stage. The leaf blight phase occurs when mature plants are infected (Fig. 1C). The bacteria enter the xylem and cause long linear yellow–grey lesions with a wavy margin that run parallel to the leaf veins. These lesions later turn necrotic and dark in colour. The leaf blight phase is most apparent after tasselling and does not generally cause death of the plant. In addition, the bacteria can sometimes break out of the xylem and cause pith rot in mature sweet corn plants. In resistant varieties, lesions are usually limited to only a few centimetres depending on the level of resistance of the particular hybrid (Claflin, 2000; Pataky, 2003).

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Disease symptoms associated with Stewart's wilt of sweet corn. (A) The seedling wilt phase of the disease which occurs when young plants are systemically infected. (B) Leaf lesions run parallel to the leaf veins. They begin as water-soaked areas that turn into long, pale-green to yellow gray streaks with wavy margins. (C) The leaf blight phase of the disease. This phase occurs when plants are infected after the seedling stage. Images used with permission from Pataky (2003, 2004).

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