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Nitrogen Use Efficiency of Crop Plants: Physiological Constraints upon Nitrogen Absorption

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Current global nitrogen fertilizer use has reached approximately one hundred billion kg per annum. In many agricultural systems, a very substantial portion of this applied nitrogen fertilizer is lost from soil to groundwaters, rivers and oceans. While soil physicochemical properties play a significant part in these losses, there are several characteristic features of plant nitrogen transporter function that facilitate N losses. Nitrate and ammonium efflux from roots result in a reduction of net nitrogen uptake. As external nitrate and ammonium concentrations, respectively, are increased, particularly into the range of concentrations that are typical of agricultural soils, elevated rates of nitrate and ammonium efflux result. The rapid down-regulation of high-affinity influx as plants become nitrogen replete further reduces the root's capacity to acquire external nitrogen; only nitrogen-starved roots absorb with both high capacity and high affinity. The results of studies using molecular biology methods demonstrate that genes encoding nitrate and ammonium transporters are rapidly down-regulated when nitrogen is resupplied to nitrogen-starved plants. Provision of ammonium to roots of plants actively absorbing nitrate imposes a block on nitrate uptake, the extent of which depends on the ammonium concentration, thus further reducing the efficient utilization of soil nitrate. During the daily variation of incoming light and during periods of low incident irradiation (i.e. heavy cloud cover) the expression levels of genes encoding nitrate and ammonium transporters, and rates of nitrate and ammonium uptake, are substantially reduced. Low temperatures reduce growth and nitrogen demand, and appear to discriminate against high-affinity nitrogen influx. In sum, these several factors conspire to limit rates of plant nitrogen uptake to values that are well below capacity. These characteristics of the plant's nitrogen uptake systems facilitate nitrogen losses from soils.
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Keywords: Ammonium influx and efflux; Ammonium inhibition of nitrate influx; Diurnal effects on nitrogen influx; Nitrate influx and efflux; Nitrogen use efficiency; Regulation of influx

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Botany, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Publication date: September 1, 2003

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