The pressing global issue of food insecurity due to population growth, diminishing land and variable climate can only be addressed in agriculture by improving both maximum crop yield potential and resilience. Genetic modification is one potential solution, but has yet to achieve worldwide acceptance, particularly for crops such as wheat. Trehalose-6-phosphate (T6P), a central sugar signal in plants, regulates sucrose use and allocation, underpinning crop growth and development. Here we show that application of a chemical intervention strategy directly modulates T6P levels in planta. Plant-permeable analogues of T6P were designed and constructed based on a 'signalling-precursor' concept for permeability, ready uptake and sunlight-triggered release of T6P in planta. We show that chemical intervention in a potent sugar signal increases grain yield, whereas application to vegetative tissue improves recovery and resurrection from drought. This technology offers a means to combine increases in yield with crop stress resilience. Given the generality of the T6P pathway in plants and other small-molecule signals in biology, these studies suggest that suitable synthetic exogenous small-molecule signal precursors can be used to directly enhance plant performance and perhaps other organism function. © 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved.