UK scientists have created a synthetic molecule that when applied to crops, has been shown to increase the size and starch content of wheat grains in the lab by up to 20%.

The new plant application was developed jointly by teams at Rothamsted Research and Oxford University.

The results of the joint study were published recently. They confirm that a naturally occurring sugar T6P in wheat plants is crucial in controlling how wheat uses sucrose, the main fuel generated by photosynthesis.

Sucrose is key to the development of wheat grains. The scientists identified that the more T6P that is available to wheat grains as they grow, the greater the yield.

Utilising the chemical expertise of Oxford University’s Chemical Research Laboratory, a modified version of T6P that could be taken up by the plant and then released within the plant in sunlight was developed.

This T6P ‘precursor’ was added to a solution and then sprayed onto the plants, causing a ‘pulse’ of T6P, which resulted in more sucrose being drawn into the grain to make starch.

When tested in the lab, under controlled environmental conditions, this approach resulted in an increase in wheat grain size and yield of up to 20%.

The study also demonstrated that application of the precursor molecule could enhance plants ability to recover from drought, which could ultimately help farmers to overcome difficult seasons more easily in the future.

Professor Ben Davis, Department of Chemistry, Oxford University said that the tests they conducted in the lab show real promise for a technique that, in the future, could radically alter how not just wheat could be farmed but many different crops.

“The ‘Green Revolution’ in the 20th century was a period where more resilient, high-yield wheat varieties were created, an innovation that has been claimed to have helped save one billion lives.”

By now developing new chemical methods based on an understanding of biology, we can secure our food sources and add to this legacy.

“That way we can make sure as many people have access to enough food as possible and that the less fortunate can be rescued from unexpected hardship.”

“The method has the potential to increase yields across a wide number of crops, as T6P is present and performs the same function in all plants and crops.”