Agronomy for Sustainable Development

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 451–464 | Cite as

Sensing crop nitrogen status with fluorescence indicators. A review

Review Article


The optimization of nitrogen (N) fertilization is the object of intense research efforts around the world. Overfertilization is commonly used as a form of insurance against uncertain soil fertility level. However, this practice results in lower nitrogen use efficiency, high levels of residual N after harvest, and losses in the environment. Determining an N recommendation that would preserve actual crop requirements, profitability of the farm, and quality of the environment has been subjected to a number of research initiatives with a variable degree of success. On one hand, soil tests are capable of estimating the intensity of N release at any point in time, but rarely the capacity factor over a longer period. On the other hand, in the context of in-season N applications, crops are often considered good integrators of factors such as the presence of mineral N, climatic conditions, soil properties, and crop management. Strategies have been proposed with plant sensor-based diagnostic information for N recommendations, but the sensitivity of reflectance-based parameters alone do not provide complete satisfaction (delayed sensitivity, need of specific chlorophyll, biomass or cover fraction ranges, lack of specificity to the N stress). Fluorescence sensing methods have been used to monitor crop physiology for years, and they may offer solutions for N status diagnosis over reflectance-based methods. In this paper, we review three plant fluorescence components related to four sensing approaches—variable chlorophyll fluorescence, leaf chlorophyll content-related fluorescence emission ratio, blue-green fluorescence, and epidermal screening of chlorophyll fluorescence by phenolic compounds—from the perspective of their relevance to N fertilization management of agricultural crops. We examine the existence of N-induced changes in each case, together with applications and limitations of the approach. Among these approaches, the fluorescence emission ratio method is the most important and the most widely used to date. However, blue-green fluorescence and epidermal screening of chlorophyll fluorescence by phenolic compounds has also received a great deal of attention particularly with the recent commercial release of instruments which can measure in real time and in vivo both the leaf chlorophyll content and several phenolic compounds (anthocyanins, flavonoïds, hydroxycinnamic acids). Overall, our conclusion is that fluorescence-based technologies allow for highly sensitive plant N status information, independently from soil interference, leaf area, or biomass status. They also allow for probing not only the chlorophyll status but also other physiological parameters known to react to N fertility conditions. These new parameters have the potential to provide new N status indicators that can be assessed remotely in a precision agriculture context.


Chlorophyll fluorescence UV-excited fluorescence Optical sensors Nitrogen status Precision crop management Polyphenolics 



The first author would like to thank Drs. Alexander Dudelzak and Sergei Babichenko for their guidance, as well as Drs. Giovanna Cecchi, Valentina Raimondi, and Giovanni Agati for hosting his OECD fellowship and the late Dr. Jürgen Wollring for his support. Z.G.C. contribution for this paper was supported by the CNRS.


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Copyright information

© INRA and Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nicolas Tremblay
    • 1
    • 3
  • Zhijie Wang
    • 1
  • Zoran G. Cerovic
    • 2
  1. 1.Agriculture and Agri-Food CanadaSaint-Jean-sur-RichelieuCanada
  2. 2.Laboratoire Ecologie, Systématique et Évolution UMR 8079, CNRSUniversité Paris-Sud 11Orsay CedexFrance
  3. 3.Saint-Jean-sur-RichelieuCanada

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