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Research and Significant Findings

Highlighted Study: Simultaneous gains in grain yield and nitrogen efficiency over 70 years of maize genetic improvement

Sarah M. Mueller, Carlos D. Messina & Tony J. Vyn

The competing demands of increasing grain yields to feed a growing population and decreasing nitrogen (N) fertilizer use and loss to the environment poses a grand challenge to farmers and society, and necessitates achieving improved N use efficiency (NUE) in cereal crops. Although selection for increased yield in maize has improved NUE over time, the present understanding of the physiological determinants of NUE and its key components hampers the design of more effective breeding strategies conducive to accelerating genetic gain for this trait. We show that maize NUE gains have been supported by more efficient allocation of N among plant organs during the grain filling period. Comparing seven maize hybrids commercialized between 1946 and 2015 from a single seed company in multiple N fertilizer treatments, we demonstrate that modern hybrids produced more grain per unit of accumulated N by more efficiently remobilizing N stored in stems than in leaves to support kernel growth. Increases in N fertilizer recovery and N harvest index at maturity were mirrored by a steady decrease in stem N allocation in this era study. These insights can inform future breeding strategies for continued NUE gains through improved conversion efficiency of accumulated plant N into grain yield.

Published in Scientific Reports, June 24, 2019

Corn Physiology and Management

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