Drought resistance, higher yields, less fertiliser: Czech scientists develop a new substance for farmers
From the lab to the store and the field. Scientists from the Laboratory of Growth Regulators, a joint facility of the Institute of Experimental Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences and Palacký University in Olomouc, have prepared a new, highly effective plant growth stimulator called MTU. Licenced to a British partner, the product containing the patented Czech substance is already being sold to farmers in the UK. Next year it will be also available in several other European countries, including the Czech Republic.
The biostimulant MTU, which is an abbreviation of its chemical name, significantly increases the resistance and yield of agricultural crops while not polluting the environment. The exclusive owner of the patents for it is the Institute of Experimental Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS), which signed a licensing agreement with the British company Intracrop this February.
"MTU primarily prevents the breakdown of chlorophyll, thereby increasing its content in leaves. Treated crops can then better absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, creating more energy-rich substances (sugars) that are used for faster root and shoot growth. Plants are then better able to absorb water and the nutrients dissolved in it," says Jaroslav Nisler from the team that created the compound ten years ago.
Thanks to these properties, MTU mitigates the effects of drought, heat and other adverse conditions on plants. "And this is particularly useful today, when growers are more often faced with the consequences of extreme weather events due to global climate change," adds the scientist.
Effect on wheat exposed to drought. Untreated plants on the left, plants after MTU application on the right. Photo: Institute of Experimental Botany of the CAS.
Higher yields under normal conditions
But the compound also stimulates plants under normal field conditions and significantly increases their yield. "For example, in field experiments with wheat in the Czech Republic in 2015–2017, MTU increased the average grain yield by 7%," says Jaroslav Nisler. Only a very small amount needs to be used: half a gram of MTU per hectare in a 200-litre spray solution with water is sufficient.
The British licensee Intracrop now sells MTU in the product named Status, in which the company has combined MTU with the natural biostimulant pidolic acid to enhance its effect.
"We recommend applying Status in the spring and our experience has been that it increases yields in wheat, maize, oilseed rape and sunflower by between 5% and 15%. Feedback from UK growers who have used it in this year's dry spring has been exceptionally positive," says Mark Palmer, Intracrop director. "We are really excited, we see this biostimulant with such an effective single ingredient as the holy grail of the future," adds Palmer.
The substance is now manufactured in Germany, sold in the UK and will be on the market in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary from 2023. Future sales are planned to expand to all EU countries, Ukraine, Turkey, Canada and the USA.
Graph of winter wheat yields from a field trial in Poland in 2021: one application of Status increased yield by 14% and 13%, respectively. Two successive applications increased yield by 19%. Source: University of Poznań for Intracrop.
Less nitrogen fertiliser, less field runoff
The new product could also help protect the environment. In fact, plants treated with MTU have an increased ability to use nitrogen fertiliser, which is another reason why they grow faster and produce more. In other words, they take up more nutrients from fertiliser into their organs, thus reducing nutrient leakage from the field into the surrounding ecosystem.
"According to our research, the new substance increases the uptake of nitrogen fertiliser by up to a quarter, which means less can be applied to the field. For example, in a field trial with maize, 15% less nitrogen was used, with no yield loss. This is crucial both for meeting the Green Deal targets and in view of the current rocketing fertiliser prices," emphasises Jan Martinec, Director of the Institute of Experimental Botany of the CAS.
Food self-sufficiency and safety
For its potential environmental benefits in reducing fertiliser use, in February 2022 the new MTU biostimulator won an award in the US competition Next Gen Fertilizer Innovations Challenge. The main organisers of the competition are two US government agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
"The substance developed by Czech scientists has a demonstrable positive effect on plant growth, does not pollute the environment, and is cheap to produce – Czech science is thus contributing another concrete example to Europe's food self-sufficiency and security," emphasises Eva Zažímalová, President of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
Sugar beet – image from a field in the UK at a 40 °C temperature. On the left are untreated plants, on the right plants after treatment with Status. Photo: Intracrop.
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What MTU stands for:
The full chemical name is: 1-(2-methoxyethyl)-3-(1,2,3-thiadiazol-5yl)urea
Nisler J., Zatloukal M., Sobotka R., Pilný J., Zdvihalová B., Novák O., Strnad M., Spíchal L. (2018) New urea derivatives are effective anti-senescence compounds acting most likely via a cytokinin-independent mechanism. Front Plant Sci 9, 1225.