The challenge of improving nitrogen use efficiency in crop plants: towards a more central role for genetic variability and quantitative genetics within integrated approaches
In this review, recent developments and future prospects of obtaining a better understanding of the regulation of nitrogen use efficiency in the main crop species cultivated in the world are presented. In these crops, an increased knowledge of the regulatory mechanisms controlling plant nitrogen economy is vital for improving nitrogen use efficiency and for reducing excessive input of fertilizers, while maintaining an acceptable yield. Using plants grown under agronomic conditions at low and high nitrogen fertilization regimes, it is now possible to develop whole-plant physiological studies combined with gene, protein, and metabolite profiling to build up a comprehensive picture depicting the different steps of nitrogen uptake, assimilation, and recycling to the final deposition in the seed. A critical overview is provided on how understanding of the physiological and molecular controls of N assimilation under varying environmental conditions in crops has been improved through the use of combined approaches, mainly based on whole-plant physiology, quantitative genetics, and forward and reverse genetics approaches. Current knowledge and prospects for future agronomic development and application for breeding crops adapted to lower fertilizer input are explored, taking into account the world economic and environmental constraints in the next century.