Secretion of pertussis toxin (PT) is the preeminent virulence trait of the human pathogen Bordetella pertussis, causing whooping cough. Bordetella bronchiseptica, although it harbors an intact 12-kb ptx-ptl operon, does not express PT due to an inactive ptx promoter (Pptx), which contains 18 SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) relative to B. pertussis Pptx. A systematic analysis of these SNPs was undertaken to define the degree of mutational divergence necessary to activate B. bronchiseptica Pptx. A single change (C-13T), which created a better?-?10 element, was capable of activating B. bronchiseptica Pptx sufficiently to allow secretion of low but measureable levels of active PT. Three additional changes in the BvgA-binding region, only in the context of C-13T mutant, raised the expression of PT to B. pertussis levels. These results illuminate a logical evolutionary pathway for acquisition of this key virulence trait in the evolution of B. pertussis from a B. bronchiseptica-like common ancestor.