Horizontally acquired genes are typically regulated by ancestral regulators. This regulation enables expression of horizontally acquired genes to be coordinated with that of preexisting genes. Here, we report a singular example of the opposite regulation: a horizontally acquired gene that controls an ancestral regulator, thereby promoting bacterial virulence. We establish that the horizontally acquired regulatory gene ssrB is necessary to activate the ancestral regulatory system PhoP/PhoQ of Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium (S. Typhimurium) in mildly acidic pH, which S. Typhimurium experiences inside macrophages. SsrB promotes phoP transcription by binding upstream of the phoP promoter. SsrB also increases ugtL transcription by binding to the ugtL promoter region, where it overcomes gene silencing by the heat-stable nucleoid structuring protein H-NS, enhancing virulence. The largely non-pathogenic species S. bongori failed to activate PhoP/PhoQ in mildly acidic pH because it lacks both the ssrB gene and the SsrB binding site in the target promoter. Low Mg2+ activated PhoP/PhoQ in both S. bongori and ssrB-lacking S. Typhimurium, indicating that the SsrB requirement for PhoP/PhoQ activation is signal-dependent. By controlling the ancestral genome, horizontally acquired genes are responsible for more crucial abilities, including virulence, than currently thought.