Letter | Published:

Chemical intervention in plant sugar signalling increases yield and resilience

Nature volume 540, pages 574578 (22 December 2016) | Download Citation


The pressing global issue of food insecurity due to population growth, diminishing land and variable climate can only be addressed in agriculture by improving both maximum crop yield potential and resilience1,2. Genetic modification is one potential solution, but has yet to achieve worldwide acceptance, particularly for crops such as wheat3. Trehalose-6-phosphate (T6P), a central sugar signal in plants, regulates sucrose use and allocation, underpinning crop growth and development4,5. Here we show that application of a chemical intervention strategy directly modulates T6P levels in planta. Plant-permeable analogues of T6P were designed and constructed based on a ‘signalling-precursor’ concept for permeability, ready uptake and sunlight-triggered release of T6P in planta. We show that chemical intervention in a potent sugar signal increases grain yield, whereas application to vegetative tissue improves recovery and resurrection from drought. This technology offers a means to combine increases in yield with crop stress resilience. Given the generality of the T6P pathway in plants and other small-molecule signals in biology, these studies suggest that suitable synthetic exogenous small-molecule signal precursors can be used to directly enhance plant performance and perhaps other organism function.

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We thank the BBSRC Selective Chemical Intervention in Biological Systems initiative (grant reference BB/D006112/1), the BBSRC Sparking Impact initiative and ICL Innovations for funding. We thank R. H. Bromilow, S. Powers, E. Tobolkina, for advice and J. Wickens for technical assistance. NiCE-MSI is supported by the 3D NanoSIMS and AIMS-HIGHER projects of the Chemical and Biological programme of the National Measurement System of the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. B.G.D. was a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award recipient during the period of research. Rothamsted Research receives strategic funding from the BBSRC.

Author information

Author notes

    • Ram Sagar

    Present address: Department of Chemistry, School of Natural Sciences, Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida 201 314, India.

    • Cara A. Griffiths
    • , Ram Sagar
    •  & Yiqun Geng

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Plant Biology and Crop Science, Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, Hertfordshire AL5 2JQ, UK

    • Cara A. Griffiths
    • , Lucia F. Primavesi
    •  & Matthew J. Paul
  2. Department of Chemistry, Chemistry Research Laboratory, University of Oxford, Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3TA, UK

    • Ram Sagar
    • , Yiqun Geng
    • , Mitul K. Patel
    •  & Benjamin G. Davis
  3. National Centre of Excellence in Mass Spectrometry Imaging (NiCE-MSI), National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Teddington, Middlesex TW11 0LW, UK

    • Melissa K. Passarelli
    • , Ian S. Gilmore
    • , Rory T. Steven
    •  & Josephine Bunch
  4. School of Pharmacy, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK

    • Josephine Bunch


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C.A.G., R.S. and Y.G. are joint first authors. C.A.G., R.S., Y.G. and L.F.P. performed experiments. R.S., Y.G. and M.K.Pat. synthesized compounds. Y.G. and M.K.Pas., I.S.G., R.T.S., J.B. and B.G.D. performed and/or analysed the mass spectrometry imaging. Y.G. and B.G.D. performed and/or analysed the tandem mass spectrometry. C.A.G., R.S., Y.G., L.F.P., M.J.P. and B.G.D. designed and analysed the experiments. M.J.P. and B.G.D. wrote the paper. All authors read and commented on the paper.

Competing interests

A patent has been filed by the University of Oxford and Rothamsted Research and, if licensed, will afford authors royalties in line with standard university practice.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Matthew J. Paul or Benjamin G. Davis.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1-20 and Supplementary References.

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