Benefits of plant silicon for crops: a review
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, silicon (Si) has been found in significant concentrations in plants. Despite the abundant literature which demonstrates its benefits in agriculture, Si is generally not considered as an essential element. The integration of Si in agricultural practices is, however, effective in a few countries. Silicon fertilization by natural silicates has the potential to mitigate environmental stresses and soil nutrient depletion and as a consequence is an alternative to the extensive use of phytosanitary and NPK fertilizers for maintaining sustainable agriculture. This review focuses on recent advances on the mechanisms of Si accumulation in plants and its behavior in soil. Seven among the ten most important crops are considered to be Si accumulators, with concentration of Si above 1% dry weight. New approaches using isotopes and genetics have highlighted the mechanisms of uptake and transfer of Si in planta. There is a general agreement on an uptake of dissolved silica as H4SiO4 and precipitation as amorphous silica particles (the so-called phytoliths), but the mechanism, either active or passive, is still a matter of debate. The benefits of Si are well demonstrated when plants are exposed to abiotic and biotic stresses. The defense mechanisms provided by Si are far from being understood, but evidences for ex planta and in planta processes are given indicating multiple combined effects rather than one single effect. Phytoliths that are located mainly in shoots of monocots return to the soil through litterfall if the plants are not harvested and contribute to the biogeochemical cycle of Si. According to recent progress made on the understanding of the biogeochemical cycle of Si and the weathering process of silicate minerals, phytoliths may significantly contribute to the resupply of Si to plants. We suggest that straw of crops, which contains large amounts of phytoliths, should be recycled in order to limit the depletion of soil bioavailable Si.