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Phenotypic plasticity of the maize root system in response to heterogeneous nitrogen availability


Mineral nutrients are distributed in a non-uniform manner in the soil. Plasticity in root responses to the availability of mineral nutrients is believed to be important for optimizing nutrient acquisition. The response of root architecture to heterogeneous nutrient availability has been documented in various plant species, and the molecular mechanisms coordinating these responses have been investigated particularly in Arabidopsis, a model dicotyledonous plant. Recently, progress has been made in describing the phenotypic plasticity of root architecture in maize, a monocotyledonous crop. This article reviews aspects of phenotypic plasticity of maize root system architecture, with special emphasis on describing (1) the development of its complex root system; (2) phenotypic responses in root system architecture to heterogeneous N availability; (3) the importance of phenotypic plasticity for N acquisition; (4) different regulation of root growth and nutrients uptake by shoot; and (5) root traits in maize breeding. This knowledge will inform breeding strategies for root traits enabling more efficient acquisition of soil resources and synchronizing crop growth demand, root resource acquisition and fertilizer application during crop growing season, thereby maximizing crop yields and nutrient-use efficiency and minimizing environmental pollution.

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Fig. 1



Axial root


Brace root


Crown root


Lateral root




Total root length


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We thank the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 31272232), the State Key Basic Research and Development Plan of China (No. 2013CB127402), the Innovative Group Grant of National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 31121062), Chinese Universities Scientific Fund (No. 2012YJ039), Post-graduate Study Abroad Program of China Scholarship Council, and the Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division (RESAS) of the Scottish Government for financial support.

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Correspondence to Chunjian Li.

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Yu, P., White, P.J., Hochholdinger, F. et al. Phenotypic plasticity of the maize root system in response to heterogeneous nitrogen availability. Planta 240, 667–678 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00425-014-2150-y

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  • Maize
  • Root growth and development
  • Nitrogen
  • Phenotypic plasticity