Even though beneficial plant-microbe interactions are commonly observed in nature, direct evidence for the evolution of bacterial mutualism in the rhizosphere remains elusive. Here we use experimental evolution to causally show that initially plant-antagonistic Pseudomonas protegens bacterium evolves into mutualists in the rhizosphere of Arabidopsis thaliana within six plant growth cycles (6 months). This evolutionary transition was accompanied with increased mutualist fitness via two mechanisms: i) improved competitiveness for root exudates and ii) enhanced capacity for activating the root-specific transcription factor gene MYB72, which triggers the production of plant-secreted scopoletin antimicrobial for which the mutualists evolved relatively higher tolerance to. Genetically, mutualism was predominantly associated with different mutations in the GacS/GacA two-component regulator system, which conferred high fitness benefits only in the presence of plants. Together, our results show that bacteria can rapidly evolve along the parasitism-mutualism continuum in the plant rhizosphere at an agriculturally relevant evolutionary timescale.
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