Jonathan P. Lynch, Tania Galindo-Castañeda, Hannah M. Schneider, Jagdeep Singh Sidhu, Harini Rangarajan, Larry M. York


Plant and Soil, 2023

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Suboptimal nitrogen availability is a primary constraint for crop production in low-input agroecosystems, while nitrogen fertilization is a primary contributor to the energy, economic, and environmental costs of crop production in high-input agroecosystems. In this article we consider avenues to develop crops with improved nitrogen capture and reduced requirement for nitrogen fertilizer.  


Intraspecific variation for an array of root phenotypes has been associated with improved nitrogen capture in cereal crops, including architectural phenotypes that colocalize root foraging with nitrogen availability in the soil; anatomical phenotypes that reduce the metabolic costs of soil exploration, improve penetration of hard soil, and exploit the rhizosphere; subcellular phenotypes that reduce the nitrogen requirement of plant tissue; molecular phenotypes exhibiting optimized nitrate uptake kinetics; and rhizosphere phenotypes that optimize associations with the rhizosphere microbiome. For each of these topics we provide examples of root phenotypes which merit attention as potential selection targets for crop improvement. Several cross-cutting issues are addressed including the importance of soil hydrology and impedance, phenotypic plasticity, integrated phenotypes, in silico modeling, and breeding strategies using high throughput phenotyping for co-optimization of multiple phenes.  


Substantial phenotypic variation exists in crop germplasm for an array of root phenotypes that improve nitrogen capture. Although this topic merits greater research attention than it currently receives, we have adequate understanding and tools to develop crops with improved nitrogen capture. Root phenotypes are underutilized yet attractive breeding targets for the development of the nitrogen efficient crops urgently needed in global agriculture.