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» News » Corporate news » Dr. Thomas Fleming (Queen’s University Belfast): “Understanding the mode of action of biostimulants is critical to producing good customer advice and developing more effective formulations”

Dr. Thomas Fleming (Queen’s University Belfast): “Understanding the mode of action of biostimulants is critical to producing good customer advice and developing more effective formulations”

We talk with Dr Thomas Fleming, postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast (Northern Ireland), about Tradecorp’s research in collaboration with Queen’s University Belfast (Northern Ireland) to analyse the performance and mode of action of different types of biostimulants. 

Q.- The research that you are carrying out in collaboration with Tradecorp is extensive and thorough, and includes a large number of analysis variables. When you began this research in 2015, what main objectives did you set? What expectations did you have of this study?

A. – At the time of my first introduction to the Tradecorp R&D team, I was collaborating on an EU Horizon 2020 project titled ‘Biofectors’ which involved studying the effects of biostimulants on stressed crop plants. We decided to design a short 1-year research project to identify the modes of action for Tradecorp’s biostimulants using the laboratory model plant, Arabidopsis thaliana.

Understanding the mode of action of biostimulants is critical to producing good customer advice and developing more effective formulations. The plant scientist’s organism of choice is a laboratory model flowering plant called Arabidopsis thaliana that can be used to investigate a wide range of biological processes, in part due to its small size, short lifecycle and genetic similarity to many crop plants.

Our main objectives were: Firstly, to perform biostimulant efficacy tests for inducing drought tolerance in A. thaliana; secondly, to perform more detailed physiological and biochemical analysis on the optimal application rate identified for each biostimulant; finally, to assess the responsive genes in biostimulant-treated plants, thereby allowing us to identify the biological pathways ‘stimulated’ by the biostimulant product.

By the end of the 1-year project we determined several key aspects involving the application rates required for enhancing plant drought tolerance, and several of major molecular and biological pathways activated by biostimulants in the plant. This information is proving to be critical to our current understanding of each of the biostimulants evaluated, and is allowing us to decipher how components within the commercial products are acting in synergy to induce drought tolerance.


Q. – Although the boom in the biostimulant market is a relatively recent concept, the industry is highly interested in knowing more about this segment and in developing new solutions and technologies that maximise crop yields and allow the manufacturing companies to stand out from their competition. What would you say is the main differentiating element of this study in relation to other research that has already been carried out in the sector?

A. – A “biostimulant” is a relatively broad term describing a diverse range of chemical substances and/or biological organisms capable of enhancing plant growth. Importantly, biostimulants offer a natural way to improve plant growth and tolerance to stress, which could only be previously achieved by plant breeding programmes or genetic modification.

Many manufacturers produce their own brands from similarly sourced materials and generally market them based on research highlighting the increased yields and/or crop quality achieved. However, these studies only go as far as identifying the economic benefits of using the product, and do little in the way of understanding how the product achieves the enhanced yields and/or quality. Our research is aiming to probe further into the underlying genetic and molecular mechanisms by which biostimulants promote plant growth, and environmental stress tolerance.

Another differentiating element of our work involves an aspect of plant biology referred to as ‘defense priming’. This is a physiological state where a plant can be induced (by natural or chemical means) into a heightened state of readiness for a future environmental stress challenge.

There are many biochemical processes involved in ‘priming’, but we have focused on the genetic mechanisms involved in ‘priming’. The fundamental science behind the ‘priming’ involves epigenetics, and can explain how gene expression differs between ‘primed’ plants and naïve plants.

The visible benefits of ‘priming’ have been documented by agronomists for many years, who often refer to this process as ‘plant conditioning’.  Understanding these genetic mechanisms will allow us to identify the specific biological pathways activated by biostimulants, and therefore promote increased plant growth and stress tolerance.


Q. – As we mentioned before, this is an extensive and detailed research project, which has not only focused on studying final products, but also on individually analysing the components of these products and how these activate certain mechanisms in the plants. Has there been any finding from this research project that you think may determine in some way how biostimulants will be used in the future?

A. – Our work has highlighted the significance of the complex multi-compound nature of the commercial products. Many of the products are produced from natural extracts, for example the Ascophyllum nodosum seaweed product range. When we begin to investigate the bioactive nature of these products and identify how they act on the plant, it is extremely challenging to confidently determine which of the compounds (out of several hundred) are beneficial.

By breaking the final products into their primary components we can compare the synergist or antagonistic effects of each component independently, thereby determining their overall importance within the complete product. Our findings have been successful in identifying the importance of several chemical components, and we have confidence they can be used to develop improved formulations that will have a greater impact on crops.


Q. – The second phase of the research project concludes in the coming months. Have you defined new stages for continuing with the research you are carrying out with Tradecorp?

A. – By utilizing information from laboratory experiments and field trials, we have made significant progress in understanding the optimal application timings of each product to achieve effective management of stress and stress tolerance in crops. Likewise, our genetic studies have indicated several of the key mechanisms and pathways by which biostimulants induce abiotic stress tolerance.

The importance of our research findings so far has allowed us develop clear product positioning and understand some of the modes of action in the plant. However, a common scenario within the R&D progress is the discovery of new or unexpected observations, which raise more questions requiring scientific scrutiny. In our next phase of this work we will be continuing to decipher modes of action and develop new products for specific stress scenarios and enhance the efficacy of current products. We will also be aiming to expand our research to address abiotic stresses other than drought.


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