What it takes to get a herbicide's mode of action. Physionomics, a classical approach in a new complexion

Pest Manag Sci. 2005 May;61(5):423-31. doi: 10.1002/ps.1016.


Discovering new herbicides with novel modes of action is a priority assignment in plant protection research. However, for active compounds identified in greenhouse screens, the crucial point is to tread the most efficient path in determining a herbicide's target site, regarding chance of success, time and research costs. Today, in the literature, molecular (functional genomics, transcriptomics), biochemical (proteomics) and analytical (metabolomics) approaches are particularly discussed. So far, less attention has been focused on the comprehensive physiological profiling of the complex plant system as a procedure which enables new herbicides, with an unknown target site for their mode of action, to be screened rapidly. Here, the concept of an array of 'functional' bioassays is presented which has ultimately been developed from the classical tool of mode of action diagnosis by symptoms. These bioassays are designed to differentiate between the distinct responses of the multiple organization units (plant, tissue, meristematic cell, organelle), developmental stages, types of metabolism (phototrophic, heterotrophic) and physiological processes in the plant organism. The response pattern to a herbicide can be viewed as the end result of changes induced in the molecular and biochemical process chain and should be diagnostic of its physiological mode of action. The results can be interpreted directly or a fingerprint database for all known modes of action to be screened for analogy. The term 'physionomics' is proposed for this comprehensive physiological profiling of the plant system, following the parallel terminology of the molecular and biochemical 'omics' technologies. Physionomics procedures provide a first clue to the mode of action of a new herbicide that can direct more time-consuming and costly molecular, biochemical, histochemical or analytical studies to identify a target site more efficiently.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Assay / methods*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Herbicides / chemistry
  • Herbicides / pharmacology*
  • Molecular Structure
  • Oxygen Consumption / drug effects
  • Plant Shoots / metabolism
  • Plants / drug effects
  • Plants / metabolism*
  • Seeds / metabolism


  • Herbicides