Plant defence

Stress molecules of plants as an alternative for antibiotics

Photography: Shutterstock

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a growing problem worldwide, and intense efforts are being made to find alternatives to antibiotics. Together with their team, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) scientists Jean-Paul Vincken and Carla Araya think that the key to a new breakthrough could lie in the defence mechanisms of plants. The molecules that germinating plants use to fight infection may also help us humans.


Bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, and it is important to find alternative ways to combat infectious diseases.


The possible development of new medicines for people based on combining molecules used by plants as a the defence mechanism.

“We have been studying plants for a long time, but until now have concentrated entirely on their nutritional uses,” Vincken says. “We would now like to study their pharmaceutical potential. We are especially curious about the substances that are not found in plants until they are submitted to stress caused by a micro-organism, for instance. In such situations, many plants produce special substances as a defence mechanism – their own antimicrobials, or antibiotics if you like. That is what makes our research unique: our colleagues normally focus on creating the ideal conditions for plants to thrive in order to enable the highest possible agricultural yield. We are doing the exact opposite by irritating plants and provoking their defence mechanisms to see if the if the substances they then produce could also help people and animals.”

‘Plants have strategies for fighting infections that we humans might also profit from’

The research team is not starting from scratch. “We have isolated a set of molecules from various plants and plant families, and studied the antimicrobials against human pathogens,” Araya says. “We want to understand how they work, how the molecules actually neutralise the bacteria. And we are especially interested in making combinations of those molecules for more complex effects. By combining the attack methods of diverse molecules, we hope to enhance their effectiveness and prevent new types of resistance.”


7 years


CMBI, Radboud University Nijmegen


the Netherlands

Funds needed


Plant molecules. Photo: Shutterstock

“We suspect that plants also combine different molecules. For millions of years, they have developed their own strategies for fighting infections. We want to understand how they work and see if humans can profit from this. Our research has identified two families of molecules and we can study what happens when we combine them. This puts us in the pre-clinical phase, in which we can carry out tests via animal-friendly experimental methods, with a focus on efficiency and safety. This is a step towards future research with humans, so the cocktails may not be toxic. There is a large likelihood that human beings have already been confronted with them because those molecules are also present in some food crops. But even so, we have to be careful, especially if we eventually want to use this in higher concentrations.”

Studying plant molecules. We want to understand how the molecules disarm the bacteria. Photo: Shutterstock

A large portion of the financing that the scientists are now seeking for their project will be used to invest in people. “We would like to have twelve PhD candidates and some postdocs working on a large number of sub-projects, which would also again emphasise the multidisciplinary character of our research,” Vincken explains. “Combining diverse fields of expertise is what we at WUR are good at and it enlarges the impact of our work. As we progress, we want to learn how to put the right molecules in the right combination into a cocktail. In addition to combining them, we also want to modify the molecules so we can optimise their functioning and make new applications for new infections. If that succeeds, then we would really be on the way to developing a fully-fledged alternative for antibiotics that is widely available and flexible enough to fight bacteria.”




Chair of Food Chemistry, Wageningen University & Research


Food chemistry, Phytochemistry, Bioactive compounds, Receptors, Enzyme activity, Chromatography, Mass spectrometry, Fermentation, Food biotechnology

Photo: Gea Hogeveen





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