Designing and developing new biostimulants is a crucial process which requires an accurate testing of the product effects on the morpho-physiological traits of plants and a deep understanding of the mechanism of action of selected products. Product screening approaches using omics technologies have been found to be more efficient and cost effective in finding new biostimulant substances. A screening protocol based on the use of high-throughput phenotyping platform for screening new vegetal-derived protein hydrolysates (PHs) for biostimulant activity followed by a metabolomic analysis to elucidate the mechanism of the most active PHs has been applied on tomato crop. Eight PHs (A–G, I) derived from enzymatic hydrolysis of seed proteins of Leguminosae and Brassicaceae species were foliarly sprayed twice during the trial. A non-ionic surfactant Triton X-100 at 0.1% was also added to the solutions before spraying. A control treatment foliarly sprayed with distilled water containing 0.1% Triton X-100 was also included. Untreated and PH-treated tomato plants were monitored regularly using high-throughput non-invasive imaging technologies. The phenotyping approach we used is based on automated integrative analysis of photosynthetic performance, growth analysis, and color index analysis. The digital biomass of the plants sprayed with PH was generally increased. In particular, the relative growth rate and the growth performance were significantly improved by PHs A and I, respectively, compared to the untreated control plants. Kinetic chlorophyll fluorescence imaging did not allow to differentiate the photosynthetic performance of treated and untreated plants. Finally, MS-based untargeted metabolomics analysis was performed in order to characterize the functional mechanisms of selected PHs. The treatment modulated the multi-layer regulation process that involved the ethylene precursor and polyamines and affected the ROS-mediated signaling pathways. Although further investigation is needed to strengthen our findings, metabolomic data suggest that treated plants experienced a metabolic reprogramming following the application of the tested biostimulants. Nonetheless, our experimental data highlight the potential for combined use of high-throughput phenotyping and metabolomics to facilitate the screening of new substances with biostimulant properties and to provide a morpho-physiological and metabolomic gateway to the mechanisms underlying PHs action on plants.
- Functional biostimulant characterization
- Integrative image-based high-throughput phenotyping
- Morpho-physiological traits
- Plant Science
- Protein hydrolysates
- ROS signaling