Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Oregon State University, Corvallis 97331-2902.
As a prerequisite to infection of flowers, Erwinia amylovora grows epiphytically on stigmas, which provide a conducive habitat for bacterial growth. Stigmas also support growth of several other bacterial genera, which allows for biological control of fire blight; although, in practice, it is very difficult to exclude E. amylovora completely from this habitat. We investigated the dynamics of growth suppression of E. amylovora by comparing the ability of virulent and avirulent strains of E. amylovora to compete with each other on stigmas of pear, apple, and blackberry, and to compete with a co-inoculated mixture of effective bacterial antagonists. When strains were inoculated individually, virulent E. amylovora strain Ea153N attained the highest population size on stigmas, with population sizes that were approximately double those of an avirulent hrpL mutant of Ea153 or the bacterial antagonists. In competition experiments, growth of the avirulent derivative was suppressed by the antagonist mixture to a greater extent than the virulent strain. Unexpectedly, the virulent strain enhanced the population size of the antagonist mixture. Similarly, a small dose of virulent Ea153N added to inoculum of an avirulent hrpL mutant of Ea153 significantly increased the population size of the avirulent strain. A pathogenesis-gene reporter strain, Ea153 dspE::gfp, was applied to flowers and a subset of the population expressed the green fluorescent protein while growing epiphytically on stigmas of apple. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that virulent E. amylovora modifies the epiphytic habitat presented by the stigma through a pathogenesis-related process, which increases host resources available to itself and, coincidentally, to nonpathogenic competitors. Over nine orchard trials, avirulent Ea153 hrpL significantly suppressed the incidence of fire blight four times compared with six for the antagonist mixture. The degree of biological control achievable with an avirulent strain of E. amylovora likely is limited by its inability to utilize the stigmatic habitat to the same degree as a virulent strain.