, Volume 294, Issue 1-2, pp 1-4
Date: 28 Apr 2007

Plant-based manipulation of nitrification in soil: a new approach to managing N loss?

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Much work has gone into the management of nitrification through applications of chemicals known to inhibit enzyme function in nitrifiers with indifferent outcomes when tested in the field. Much less attention has been focused on the capacity of plants to modify nitrification in situ. Subbarao and coworkers in a series of neat and elegant studies have confirmed that a tropical grass species, Brachiaria humidicola, produces chemicals that inhibit nitrification in soil. Critical to the work was the use of a Nitrosomonas europaea strain (nitrifying bacteria) that had been specifically constructed to produce bioluminescence due to the expression of “luxAB’ genes during nitrification. This application led to the development of an assay that enabled the suppression of nitrification to be assessed directly. They produce evidence that the production of chemicals by Brachiaria humidicola roots, described as biological nitrification inhibitors (BNIs), is under plant control. However, the triggers or molecular controls for BNI production have yet to be ascertained. Examination of the capacity of major crops to produce BNIs, including wheat (Triticum aestivum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), rice (Oryza sativa) and maize (Zea mays) indicate that these do not have this capacity. Work is needed on wild relatives of these crops and the major temperate grass species such as Lolium perenne to determine whether these have the capacity to produce BNIs with an aim to introduce this capacity into domesticated lines. The work of Subbarao et al. highlights how molecular biology can be used to introduce traits into micro-organisms responsible for key soil N transformations in a way that facilitates analysis of the interaction between plants and the soil environment so crucial to their growth and survival.