Understanding how bacteria affect plant health is crucial for developing sustainable crop production systems. We coupled ecological sampling and genome sequencing to characterize the population genetic history of Rhodococcus and the distribution patterns of virulence plasmids in isolates from nurseries. Analysis of chromosome sequences shows that plants host multiple lineages of Rhodococcus, and suggested that these bacteria are transmitted due to independent introductions, reservoir populations, and point source outbreaks. We demonstrate that isolates lacking virulence genes promote beneficial plant growth, and that the acquisition of a virulence plasmid is sufficient to transition beneficial symbionts to phytopathogens. This evolutionary transition, along with the distribution patterns of plasmids, reveals the impact of horizontal gene transfer in rapidly generating new pathogenic lineages and provides an alternative explanation for pathogen transmission patterns. Results also uncovered a misdiagnosed epidemic that implicated beneficial Rhodococcus bacteria as pathogens of pistachio. The misdiagnosis perpetuated the unnecessary removal of trees and exacerbated economic losses.
Keywords: Rhodococcus; epidemiology; evolutionary transition; global health; horizontal gene transfer; mutualism; plant biology; plant growth promoting bacteria; virulence.