Nitrogen transformations in modern agriculture and the role of biological nitrification inhibition

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The nitrogen (N)-use efficiency of agricultural plants is notoriously poor. Globally, about 50% of the N fertilizer applied to cropping systems is not absorbed by plants, but lost to the environment as ammonia (NH3), nitrate (NO3), and nitrous oxide (N2O, a greenhouse gas with 300 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide), raising agricultural production costs and contributing to pollution and climate change. These losses are driven by volatilization of NH3 and by a matrix of nitrification and denitrification reactions catalysed by soil microorganisms (chiefly bacteria and archaea). Here, we discuss mitigation of the harmful and wasteful process of agricultural N loss via biological nitrification inhibitors (BNIs) exuded by plant roots. We examine key recent discoveries in the emerging field of BNI research, focusing on BNI compounds and their specificity and transport, and discuss prospects for their role in improving agriculture while reducing its environmental impact.

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Figure 1: Nitrogen budgets of the ‘big three’ crops.
Figure 2: Schematic overview of the fate of nitrogen fertilizers applied to agricultural systems.
Figure 3: BNIs from root exudates and their enzyme targets.
Figure 4: Zonation and mechanisms of BNI root exudation.


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The authors would like to thank the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Strategic Priority Research Program (B)—‘Soil-microbial system function and regulation’ of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

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Correspondence to Herbert J. Kronzucker.

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Coskun, D., Britto, D., Shi, W. et al. Nitrogen transformations in modern agriculture and the role of biological nitrification inhibition. Nature Plants 3, 17074 (2017) doi:10.1038/nplants.2017.74

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