There has been a growing interest in deploying plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR) as a biological control agent (BCA) to reduce the use of agrochemicals. Spontaneous phenotypic variation of PGPR, which causes the loss of traits crucial for biocontrol, presents a large obstacle in producing commercial biocontrol products. Here, we report molecular changes associated with phenotypic variation in Paenibacillus polymyxa, a PGPR widely used for biocontrol worldwide, and a simple cultural change that can prevent the variation. Compared to B-type (non-variant) cells of P. polymyxa strain E681, its phenotypic variant, termed as F-type, fails to form spores, does not confer plant growth-promoting effect, and displays altered colony and cell morphology, motility, antagonism against other microbes, and biofilm formation. This variation was observed in all tested strains of P. polymyxa, but the frequency varied among them. RNA-seq analysis revealed differential regulation of many genes involved in sporulation, flagella synthesis, carbohydrate metabolism, and antimicrobial production in F-type cells, consistent with their pleiotropic phenotypic changes. F-type cells's sporulation was arrested at stage 0, and the key sporulation gene spo0A was upregulated only in B-type cells. The phenotypic variation could be prevented by altering the temperature for growth. When E681 was cultured at 20 °C or lower, it exhibited no variation for 7 days and still reached ~ 108 cfu/mL, the level sufficient for commercial-scale production of biocontrol products.
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