A new crop protection strategy based on chemical priming of the plant immune system.

Professor Jurriaan Ton works on plant samples which are stored under lights at the University's Arthur Willis Environment Centre.


ChemPrime was funded by a proof-of-concept grant from the European Research Council (ERC). The project’s main objective was to identify pathways for commercialisation of priming chemicals as a viable crop protection technology.

The ChemPrime project was completed on 31st October 2020.

Download the final project report (pdf 662KB)

ChemPrime summary

Treatment of plants with chemical priming agents increases their resistance against plant pests and diseases. This long-lasting protection is based on a form of immunological memory, which enables plants to mount a faster and stronger immune response against future attack by pests and diseases.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food have optimised this technology to minimise effects on crop yield and have devised ways of implementing it for integrated crop protection strategies.


A large proportion of global crop yield is lost to plant diseases every year. While pesticides help to reduce these losses, there are growing environmental concerns about their use as well as plants developing resistance, which is lowering efficacy.

It is possible to increase disease resistance in plants by priming the plant immune system to enable them to display a faster and stronger defence reaction to pests and diseases. So far, chemical priming agents have not reached their full economic potential due to undesirable effects on plant growth and crop yield. We have shown through previous research (at the University of Sheffield) mechanisms by which selected β-amino acid chemicals can induce broad-spectrum resistance with minimal side-effects on plant growth (Luna et al., 2014; Luna et al., 2016; Buswell et al., 2018; Schwarzenbacher et al., 2020).

What’s next?

The main deliverables of the ChemPrime project have accelerated the technology readiness level (TRL). Shown in the report are four commercialisation pathways to facilitate the adoption of priming chemicals as a crop protection strategy.

We will continue to co-design our next steps with our industry partners, end-users and contacts to develop a viable product. We have identified the need for practical and integratable methods as well as the importance of a cost-benefit analysis.

ChemPrime has uncovered new regulatory genes in the perception, signalling and trade-offs of chemical immune priming in plants. These could be used by crop breeding companies to select for crop varieties that respond well to these resistance-inducing chemicals. The findings also provide new clues about the mechanisms by which primed plants retain epigenetic immune memory.

Engagement with the agri-tech sector has led to a new research partnership with ENZA Seeds, a seed company, that aims at exploiting epigenetic variation in lettuce to optimise immune priming against downy mildew diseases. In addition, ChemPrime is exploring funding opportunities to create a spin-off company for the biochemical production of bioactive β-amino acids.

Based on our research on epigenetic regulation of plant immune priming (maintenance of the ‘primed’ defence state), we are also developing adustiable epi-mutagenesis strategies to select for epigenetically primed crop varieties.

If you would like to know more about the results, or if you are interested to collaborate on the development of plant priming into a crop protection technology, please contact us.

Stem of a plant growing horizontally across a hydroponic tube

ChemPrime history

A large proportion of global crop yield is lost to plant diseases every year. While pesticides help to reduce these losses, there are growing concerns about plants developing resistance and the impacts of these chemicals on health and environment. The objective of this proof-of-concept project is to develop a crop protection technology that is based on priming of the plant’s own immune system, providing an enhanced defensive capacity to resist attackers.

While priming is considered attractive for exploitation in integrated pest and disease management, chemical priming agents have never reached their full economic potential due to undesirable non-target effects on plant growth and yield.

A previous European Research Council project (Prime-A-Plant) has revealed key insights in the mechanisms by which plants perceive and respond to priming-inducing chemicals. The current ‘ChemPrime’ project aims to develop these discoveries into a crop protection strategy through working with commercial stakeholders.

The first part of the project involves translational research to make the concept more attractive for adoption by commercial stakeholders – examining the effectiveness of priming compounds against a range of economically relevant crop diseases, identifying genetic targets in crops to improve the effectiveness of the R-beta-homoserine priming response, assessing chemical residues in crop products and waste streams, and optimising formulation for applications in different production systems.

The second part of the project involves engagement activities to initiate collaborative research and development with agri-tech companies and to develop the concept into a commercially viable crop protection strategy.

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