Understanding the physiological response of crops to chitin in the growing medium: a metabolomics approach

Project Details


Main research question/goal

Exactly what physiological processes take place inside plants when chitin is added to their growth substrate? That's what the researchers want to find out by using a metabolomics approach using liquid chromatography-high resolution mass spectrometry (LC-HRMS). 
A metabolomic approach, one of the newer branches within "omics", makes it possible to use metabolites that reflect a particular phenotype to obtain additional information, in addition to the information obtained via DNA ("genomic"), RNA ("transcricptomic") or proteins ("proteomic"). The advantage is that metabolites are the closest link to the phenotype. The metabolomics approach is the ideal layer to understand the chemical change during the development, growth and stress of a plant.   

Chitin is the second most abundant polysaccharide on Earth. It is extracted from byproducts from the fishing industry, specifically from the shells of crabs and shrimp, among others. Previous greenhouse experiments at ILVO showed that adding chitin to a soil substrate resulted in remarkably better growth and fewer disease symptoms for the plants. Chitin thus appears to be a promising alternative to mineral fertilizers and chemical crop protection products. The fundamental explanation for the observed beneficial effects has not yet been determined. 

Research approach

We are studying the effect of chitin as a growth stimulator.  We also investigate the response of the plant to chitin around the root system after colonization by pathogens (biotic stress). In lettuce we use the zoonotic Salmonella enterica, in strawberry the plant pathogenic fungus Botrytis cinerea. In addition to developing and optimizing protocols for plant trials in the greenhouse, the project mainly focuses on the instrumental analysis of a non-targeted metabolomics approach using UHPLC-HRMS. This requires method development and optimization. We compare for evaluation the obtained results with the other measurement methods such as microbiome analyses. This creates a general picture of the physiological responses in the plant. At the end we work out, if necessary, new methods with other devices/techniques such as GC-MS or targeted LC-MS (/MS) analyses. 


The project investigates the metabolic response of crops under biotic stress and the effect that chitin addition to the growth substrate has under these stress conditions. We expect in-depth information on metabolites responsible for enhanced growth and health of plants. This serves to understand the mechanism of action of environmentally friendly methods for promoting crop growth and health. This is important for the environment, plant and human health, and to give a boost to the circular economy. 

Effective start/end date15/04/2114/04/25