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Nitrogen Use Efficiency
Plants need plenty of nitrogen to grow properly, as the nutrient plays a role in almost all plant activities.
To satisfy this need, farmers worldwide apply about 100 million tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser to croplands each year. The reason farmers have to add this much nitrogen is that many agricultural crops are very inefficient at using it. For example, cereals only utilise about 40% from the nitrogen that is applied as fertiliser.
Apart from being economically wasteful, this practice is also costly to the environment. Nitrogen pollution of waterways is a worsening problem worldwide. Nitrogen fertiliser use adds to greenhouse gases through the emission of nitrous oxide, a gas with more than 300 times the global warming power of carbon dioxide, which by conservative estimates accounts for more than seven per cent of the human-influenced greenhouse effect.
Why are crops so bad at using nitrogen? It may be that, by breeding for crops that have high yields when there is plenty of nitrogen available, we have created inefficient plants.
The ACPFG nitrogen use efficiency group are aiming to improve the nitrogen use efficiency of cereals by increasing the efficiency of mechanisms that plants use to accumulate and utilise nitrogen.
Focusing on corn, wheat and barley, the project is characterising nitrogen-related processes at the physiological, biochemical and molecular levels across plants’ lifecycles. The goal is to work out what makes a more nitrogen-efficient plant, and ultimately produce plants with these attributes.
ACPFG has NUE collaborations with Pioneer-HiBred (maize) and Arcadia Biosciences (wheat and barley).
The research uses a multifaceted approach including classical plant physiology and biochemistry teamed with transcriptomics to define the rate-limiting steps in nitrogen use efficiency, and cell-specific gene activation to modify nitrogen use efficiency.
Assoc. Professor Sigrid Heuer
Prospective students can read about ACPFG NUE projects here