New chemical spray boosts wheat yield and grain size
Sprinkle on some sugar and wait for the yield boom. A new crop spray isn’t fairy dust—it holds major implications for agricultural production with the potential to boost yields by an astounding 20%. Researchers have designed a synthetic molecule, without genetic modification, that enhances size and starch of grains by a fifth.
United Kingdom scientists have produced a chemical spray application to increase the amount of starch formed in wheat. Spraying the compound during grain fill successfully increases grain size and yield, and might boost plant health following drought. In addition, research suggests the technology is applicable across the crop spectrum.
In partnership, Matthew Paul, senior scientist of plant biology and crop science at Rothamsted Research, and Ben Davis, professor at the Department of Chemistry at Oxford, have developed synthetic precursors to boost crop use of the sugar trehalose 6-phosphate (T6P), essentially forging a chemical path to increase the efficiency of sugar as a plant fuel: As T6P availability increases, yield grows in tandem.
T6P acts as a fuel gauge—it tells a plant how much sugar is available for development. However, in its normal state, T6P can’t be taken up by plants and needs the attachment of different chemical groups to improve solubility.
When synthetic precursors of T6P are sprayed in solution on wheat, a T6P pulse is fired within the plants, triggering more growth. T6P regulates hundreds of genes and acts like a plant growth regulator (PGR) or hormone, Paul explains: “It’s a PGR based around a sugar molecule, but it’s novel and different from other PGRs because it links sugar metabolism with the yield process.”
In laboratory conditions, Paul sprayed wheat during grain fill, 10 days after anthesis. A single application was enough to boost yield up to 20%. In simulated drought conditions, Paul applied the T6P solution prior to watering and noted significant regrowth stimulation. “T6P may be a way to rescue a field affected by drought,” he says. “It could be a way to help make up for lost time.”
Pared down, the process is a chemical application based on a sugar compound and is a non-GMO approach to yield enhancement. In theory, it could be added to other spray solutions already in use, Paul adds.
A 20% yield boost was the upper limit noted, with most results registering between 10% and 20%. The increase was massive, particularly considering the absence of genetic modification. “We were pleasantly surprised by the findings, to say the least,” Paul explains. “Typical breeding techniques offer yield increases in tiny increments.”
In parallel lab and field work, Paul and Davis are focusing on bulking up the compound and conducting field trials in England in 2017. They are seeking commercial partners and hope to follow with field trials in the U.S.
Research will also expand to other crops beyond wheat. All plants need sucrose regulation, opening the door on T6P fine-tuning for any crop, Paul explains: “We’ll start with crops most related to wheat such as rice and corn, but the science applies to cotton, soybeans or any other field crop.”
“I don’t want to raise farmer hopes too high, but this compound gives us real opportunity to increase yield and protect drought,” he says.