Rooting Out How Plants Control Nitrogen Use

Apr 11, 2023

Insights into gene and protein control systems that regulate the use of nitrogen by plant roots could help develop crops that require less nitrogenous fertilizers to produce acceptable yields. Plant biochemist Soichi Kojima and colleagues at Tohoku University discuss their findings and future plans in an article in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.

Nitrogen is such a crucial nutrient for plants that vast quantities of nitrogen-containing fertilizers are spread on farmlands worldwide. These fertilizers mostly contain nitrogen as ammonium ions (NH4 +), the chemical form in which nitrogen is most readily taken up by plant roots. However, excess nitrogen in the soil and in drainage run-off into lakes and rivers causes serious ecological imbalances, including algal blooms that de-oxygenate water and kill fish and other aquatic life.

"One of the key goals of modern agricultural research is to develop crops that can grow healthily without relying on so much added nitrogen," says Kojima. He adds that there are also significant economic and environmental incentives behind this aim, pointing out: "Energy from vast quantities of fossil fuels is currently needed to convert nitrogen in the air into ammonium for fertilizers."

The researchers worked with the small flowering plant thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), a common species used for laboratory studies in plant science.

"Taken together, our results reveal, at the genetic level, regulatory mechanisms at work when plants utilize nitrogenous fertilizers in their roots," says Kojima.

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