Low crown root number enhances nitrogen acquisition from low-nitrogen soils in maize

Patompong Saengwilai, Xiaoli Tian, Jonathan Paul Lynch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

153 Scopus citations


In developing nations, low soil nitrogen (N) availability is a primary limitation to crop production and food security, while in rich nations, intensive N fertilization is a primary economic, energy, and environmental cost to crop production. It has been proposed that genetic variation for root architectural and anatomical traits enhancing the exploitation of deep soil strata could be deployed to develop crops with greater N acquisition. Here, we provide evidence that maize (Zea mays) genotypes with few crown roots (crown root number [CN]) have greater N acquisition from low-N soils. Maize genotypes differed in their CN response to N limitation in greenhouse mesocosms and in the field. Low-CN genotypes had 45% greater rooting depth in low-N soils than high-CN genotypes. Deep injection of 15N-labeled nitrate showed that low-CN genotypes under low-N conditions acquired more N from deep soil strata than high-CN genotypes, resulting in greater photosynthesis and plant N content. Under low N, low-CN genotypes had greater biomass than high-CN genotypes at flowering (85% in the field study in the United States and 25% in South Africa). In the field in the United States, 1.83 variation in CN was associated with 1.83 variation in yield reduction by N limitation. Our results indicate that CN deserves consideration as a potential trait for genetic improvement of N acquisition from low-N soils.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)581-589
Number of pages9
JournalPlant physiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physiology
  • Genetics
  • Plant Science


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