Computational Metabolomics Tools Reveal Metabolic Reconfigurations Underlying the Effects of Biostimulant Seaweed Extracts on Maize Plants under Drought Stress Conditions

Tinte, Morena M.; Masike, Keabetswe; Steenkamp, Paul A.; Huyser, Johan; Hooft, Justin J.J. van der; Tugizimana, Fidele


Drought is one of the major abiotic stresses causing severe damage and losses in economically important crops worldwide. Drought decreases the plant water status, leading to a disruptive metabolic reprogramming that negatively affects plant growth and yield. Seaweed extract-based biostimulants show potential as a sustainable strategy for improved crop health and stress resilience. However, cellular, biochemical, and molecular mechanisms governing the agronomically observed benefits of the seaweed extracts on plants are still poorly understood. In this study, a liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry-based untargeted metabolomics approach combined with computational metabolomics strategies was applied to unravel the molecular ‘stamps’ that define the effects of seaweed extracts on greenhouse-grown maize (Zea mays) under drought conditions. We applied mass spectral networking, substructure discovery, chemometrics, and metabolic pathway analyses to mine and interpret the generated mass spectral data. The results showed that the application of seaweed extracts induced alterations in the different pathways of primary and secondary metabolism, such as phenylpropanoid, flavonoid biosynthesis, fatty acid metabolism, and amino acids pathways. These metabolic changes involved increasing levels of phenylalanine, tryptophan, coumaroylquinic acid, and linolenic acid metabolites. These metabolic alterations are known to define some of the various biochemical and physiological events that lead to enhanced drought resistance traits. The latter include root growth, alleviation of oxidative stress, improved water, and nutrient uptake. Moreover, this study demonstrates the use of molecular networking in annotating maize metabolome. Furthermore, the results reveal that seaweed extract-based biostimulants induced a remodeling of maize metabolism, subsequently readjusting the plant towards stress alleviation, for example, by increasing the plant height and diameter through foliar application. Such insights add to ongoing efforts in elucidating the modes of action of biostimulants, such as seaweed extracts. Altogether, our study contributes to the fundamental scientific knowledge that is necessary for the development of a biostimulants industry aiming for a sustainable food security.