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We report a novel host-associated virulence plasmid in Rhodococcus equi, pVAPN, carried by bovine isolates of this facultative intracellular pathogenic actinomycete. Surprisingly, pVAPN is a 120-kb invertron-like linear replicon unrelated to the circular virulence plasmid associated with equine (pVAPA) and porcine (pVAPB variant) R. equi isolates. pVAPN is similar to the linear plasmid pNSL1 from Rhodococcus sp. NS1 and harbors six new vap multigene family members (vapN to -S) in a vap pathogenicity locus acquired via en-bloc mobilization from a direct predecessor of the equine pVAPA. Loss of pVAPN rendered R. equi avirulent in macrophages and mice. Mating experiments using an in vivo transconjugant selection strategy demonstrated that pVAPN transfer is sufficient to confer virulence to a plasmid-cured R. equi recipient. Phylogenetic analyses distributed the vap multigene family complement from pVAPN, pVAPA and pVAPB in seven monophyletic clades, each containing plasmid type-specific allelic variants of a precursor vap gene carried by the nearest vap island ancestor. Deletion of vapN, the predicted "bovine-type" allelic counterpart of vapA essential for virulence in pVAPA, abrogated pVAPN-mediated intramacrophage proliferation and virulence in mice. Our findings support a model in which R. equi virulence is conferred by host-adapted plasmids. Their central role is mediating intracellular proliferation in macrophages, promoted by a key vap determinant present in the common ancestor of the plasmid-specific vap islands, with host tropism as a secondary trait selected during co-evolution of individual virulence plasmids with specific animal species.