Skip to main content

Academics find new approach to protect crop plants from drought

Academics find new approach to protect crop plants from drought

  • Date28 March 2024

New research by academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, has identified new, ultrapotent chemicals that control the growth of plants. These new compounds may prove important new tools in agriculture and horticulture.

Plant stress

Through the investigation of a natural product produced by plants, new research has identified that it inhibits the formation of a plant hormone, ethylene, necessary for seed germination and plant growth. Blocking ethylene production may also increase the survival of plants during drought, control the ripening of fruits and vegetables, and slow flower ageing. Current inhibitors of ethylene production are relatively weak, thus needing high concentrations to block plant ethylene production, prohibiting use in agriculture. The increased potency of these new compounds may enable new approaches to crop growth and survival.

The research was led by Professor Robin SB Williams and Dr George Heslop Harrison from the Department of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway, with additional work by Professor David Alabadí, from the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology of Plants in Valencia, Spain. The team identified a group of chemicals that block ethylene production at much greater potency than existing inhibitors.

Their research initially investigated a chemical produced by the Bog myrtle plant (Myrica gale), which had been known to block seed germination, but how it worked was unclear. The team employed a highly innovative approach to identify how the chemical worked, using the social amoeba Dictyostelium.

Once the enzyme had been identified, computer modelling allowed the screening of hundreds of novel compounds to reproduce this effect. Using this approach two novel highly potent compounds have been discovered.

The last part of the project involved demonstrating how the new compounds blocked ethylene production in plants.

Professor Robin Williams said: “The most important step in this process was identifying how the compound inhibited the enzyme responsible for ethylene production. From that discovery, we were able to identify related chemicals that were much more potent.

“We expect these compounds will have far-reaching effects, for example in the flower industry where they may increase the shelf life of flowers, or in agriculture where they may protect crops during droughts to improve plant survival.”

Dr George Heslop Harrison said: “Another enormous benefit for using Dictyostelium in this project was that we could quickly and easily screen dozens of the novel compounds identified using computer modelling to show which ones were effective.”

Professor David Alabadí added: “The increased potency of these compounds will make it easier for scientists – and perhaps farmers – to inhibit ethylene production in plants.”

Explore Royal Holloway

Get help paying for your studies at Royal Holloway through a range of scholarships and bursaries.

There are lots of exciting ways to get involved at Royal Holloway. Discover new interests and enjoy existing ones.

Heading to university is exciting. Finding the right place to live will get you off to a good start.

Whether you need support with your health or practical advice on budgeting or finding part-time work, we can help.

Discover more about our academic departments and schools.

Find out why Royal Holloway is in the top 25% of UK universities for research rated ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’.

Royal Holloway is a research intensive university and our academics collaborate across disciplines to achieve excellence.

Discover world-class research at Royal Holloway.

Discover more about who we are today, and our vision for the future.

Royal Holloway began as two pioneering colleges for the education of women in the 19th century, and their spirit lives on today.

We’ve played a role in thousands of careers, some of them particularly remarkable.

Find about our decision-making processes and the people who lead and manage Royal Holloway today.