Methods to ensure the health of crops owe their efficacy to the extent to which we understand the ecology and biology of environmental microorganisms and the conditions under which their interactions with plants lead to losses in crop quality or yield. However, in the pursuit of this knowledge, notions of the ecology of plant-pathogenic microorganisms have been reduced to a plant-centric and agro-centric focus. With increasing global change, i.e. changes that encompass not only climate, but also biodiversity, the geographical distribution of biomes, human demographic and socio-economic adaptations and land use, new plant health problems will emerge via a range of processes influenced by these changes. Hence, knowledge of the ecology of plant pathogens will play an increasingly important role in the anticipation and response to disease emergence. Here, we present our opinion on the major challenges facing the study of the ecology of plant-pathogenic bacteria. We argue that the discovery of markedly novel insights into the ecology of plant-pathogenic bacteria is most likely to happen within a framework of more extensive scales of space, time and biotic interactions than those that currently guide much of the research on these bacteria. This will set a context that is more propitious for the discovery of unsuspected drivers of the survival and diversification of plant-pathogenic bacteria and of the factors most critical for disease emergence, and will set the foundation for new approaches to the sustainable management of plant health. We describe the contextual background of, justification for and specific research questions with regard to the following challenges: Development of terminology to describe plant–bacterial relationships in terms of bacterial fitness. Definition of the full scope of the environments in which plant-pathogenic bacteria reside or survive. Delineation of pertinent phylogenetic contours of plant-pathogenic bacteria and naming of strains independent of their presumed life style. Assessment of how traits of plant-pathogenic bacteria evolve within the overall framework of their life history. Exploration of possible beneficial ecosystem services contributed to by plant-pathogenic bacteria.
- disease control
- disease emergence