Pantoea ananatis is the primary cause of onion center rot. Genetic data suggest that a phosphonic acid natural product is required for pathogenesis; however, the nature of the molecule is unknown. Here, we show that P. ananatis produces at least three phosphonates, two of which were purified and structurally characterized. The first, designated pantaphos, was shown to be 2-(hydroxy[phosphono] methyl)maleate; the second, a probable biosynthetic precursor, was shown to be 2(phosphonomethyl)maleate. Purified pantaphos is both necessary and sufficient for the hallmark lesions of onion center rot. Moreover, when tested against mustard seedlings, the phytotoxic activity of pantaphos was comparable to the widely used herbicides glyphosate and phosphinothricin. Pantaphos was also active against a variety of human cell lines but was significantly more toxic to glioblastoma cells. Pantaphos showed little activity when tested against a variety of bacteria and fungi. IMPORTANCE Pantoea ananatis is a significant plant pathogen that targets a number of important crops, a problem that is compounded by the absence of effective treatments to prevent its spread. Our identification of pantaphos as the key virulence factor in onion center rot suggests a variety of approaches that could be employed to address this significant plant disease. Moreover, the general phytotoxicity of the molecule suggests that it could be developed into an effective herbicide to counter the alarming rise in herbicide-resistant weeds.
- Natural products
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