As universities look for better ways to measure N use, seed companies are beginning a difficult search to find the genetic key to improving the plant’s ability to take up and metabolize N.

At DuPont Pioneer, researchers are studying three areas of potential N improvement:

  • Corn roots to improve N uptake from the soil
  • N movement through the plant
  • N conversion to protein within the plant

“We are looking at multiple potential targets in improving N efficiency,” says Jeff Schussler, a senior research manager at DuPont Pioneer. “The scientific literature would suggest you can improve the efficiencies of those processes. We know we’re not capturing all the N supplied to the corn crop.”

Current research at DuPont Pioneer is still in the discovery phase, and commercialization of a NUE corn seed probably won’t happen until the end of the decade, he says. The company is looking into the corn genome to see if the potential for improved NUE already exists in the plant, as well as researching a transgenic approach and has some “interesting GMO leads” that are currently in field trials.

“We’re convinced there’s potential for improvement in native corn genes. Of the major crops in the world, corn is not that bad,” he says.

Schussler says the drive to increase yields has improved N efficiency, but NUE has not been the focus of research until now.

The direction of genetics research is promising, Vyn says, but he doesn’t think a solution will be soon or simple because looking for a NUE advantage is even more complicated than looking for a yield gain. There are many, many more processes to be tweaked to arrive at these improvements.

He says it’s a question of right product, right rate, right time and right place; along with optimum plant populations, crop rotations and tillage systems.

“There’s a challenge on the breeding side and the production side to ensure sufficient, but not excessive, N is there when the corn plant needs it most,” Vyn says.


Photosynthesis under the microscope

Thepotential to reduce nitrogen and water use is part of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation $25 million grant to improve food crops’ photosynthesis. The five-year grant goes to the University of Illinois in Urbana to increase photosynthetic efficiency.