Jonathan Lynch a professor of plant nutrition in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has worked with colleagues around the world to develop soybean plants with better root systems that produce better yields in low phosphorus soils. Now he is using the knowledge gained from working soybean root system to develop corn varieties that are more efficient at taking up nitrogen fertilizer.
A different but related problem has recently motivated Lynch to turn his attention to the roots of corn grown in the United States and their ability to take up another vital nutrient -- nitrogen. "This is a new direction for us," he said. "We are taking what we learned about root traits that improve phosphorus acquisition from the soil and applying it to developing corn varieties that are more efficient in taking up nitrogen."
And since corn is a part of so many things that we eat, the implications of this research could be enormous.
"Corn is the single biggest crop grown in this country, and the major cost for corn farmers in the United States is buying nitrogen fertilizer," Lynch said. "Only about half of the nitrogen fertilizer applied to corn is used by the crop; the rest is wasted. If we could improve the efficiency of the corn crop by 20 percent -- that would be huge.
Developing corn varieties that more efficiently use nitrogen would mean that less fertilizer would need to be applied to reach the same yields. And since most nitrogen fertilizer comes from natural gas, the amount of energy needed to produce a corn crop would be lower. The cost of corn production and the possibility of fertilizer runoff would also be reduced.