Background: Pantoea agglomerans strains are among the most promising biocontrol agents for a variety of bacterial and fungal plant diseases, particularly fire blight of apple and pear. However, commercial registration of P. agglomerans biocontrol products is hampered because this species is currently listed as a biosafety level 2 (BL2) organism due to clinical reports as an opportunistic human pathogen. This study compares plant-origin and clinical strains in a search for discriminating genotypic/phenotypic markers using multi-locus phylogenetic analysis and fluorescent amplified fragment length polymorphisms (fAFLP) fingerprinting.
Results: Majority of the clinical isolates from culture collections were found to be improperly designated as P. agglomerans after sequence analysis. The frequent taxonomic rearrangements underwent by the Enterobacter agglomerans/Erwinia herbicola complex may be a major problem in assessing clinical associations within P. agglomerans. In the P. agglomerans sensu stricto (in the stricter sense) group, there was no discrete clustering of clinical/biocontrol strains and no marker was identified that was uniquely associated to clinical strains. A putative biocontrol-specific fAFLP marker was identified only in biocontrol strains. The partial ORF located in this band corresponded to an ABC transporter that was found in all P. agglomerans strains.
Conclusion: Taxonomic mischaracterization was identified as a major problem with P. agglomerans, and current techniques removed a majority of clinical strains from this species. Although clear discrimination between P. agglomerans plant and clinical strains was not obtained with phylogenetic analysis, a single marker characteristic of biocontrol strains was identified which may be of use in strain biosafety determinations. In addition, the lack of Koch's postulate fulfilment, rare retention of clinical strains for subsequent confirmation, and the polymicrobial nature of P. agglomerans clinical reports should be considered in biosafety assessment of beneficial strains in this species.