Plant and Soil

, Volume 400, Issue 1–2, pp 245–262 | Cite as

Complementary diversity for nitrogen uptake and utilisation efficiency reveals broad potential for increased sustainability of oilseed rape production

  • Andreas Stahl
  • Wolfgang Friedt
  • Benjamin Wittkop
  • Rod J. Snowdon
Regular Article



Nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) has become a major global megatrend for sustainable agricultural production, particularly in association with the reduced release of nitrogen-derived greenhouse gases from soils and nitrate contamination of waterways. Oilseed rape (Brassica napus L.), the second most important oilseed crop worldwide, requires relatively high N fertilisation but releases an N balance surplus after harvest. The use of genetic variation to breed more efficient varieties is a promising option to improve agricultural sustainability.


We assessed 30 diverse winter oilseed rape accessions at contrasting nitrogen fertilisation levels for 33 physiological traits associated with N uptake and utilisation efficiency. Relationships among traits across the diversity panel were used to identify key complementary factors contributing to overall NUE.


Trait correlations revealed considerable variation for NUE parameters, including positive effects of early flowering and high leaf N concentration on enhanced N utilisation under low N input. Furthermore, seed yield per se was found to be more important than the seed N concentration for simultaneously achieving both high N utilisation and reduced N balance surplus.


Independent inheritance of N uptake and N utilisation traits suggests potential for further improvement of NUE in oilseed rape by targeted combination of contributing factors in new, high-yielding varieties.


Nitrogen use efficiency Genetic diversity Fertilisation N balance surplus 



Coefficient of variation


Least significant difference


Dry matter


Nitrogen fertilisation level


Low nitrogen


High nitrogen


Seed yield


Soil content of nitrate and ammonium


Nitrogen fertilisation


Number of leaves at flowering


Number of side branches


Days after Jan 1st


Nitrogen concentration in leaves at flowering


Mass of leaves at flowering


N content of leaves at flowering


Nitrogen concentration in siliques at flowering


Mass of siliques at flowering


N content of siliques at flowering


Nitrogen concentration in stems at flowering


Mass of stems at flowering


N content of stems at flowering


N content in complete biomass at flowering


N concentration of seeds


N yield of seeds


Oil concentration of seeds


Oil yield






Oleic acid


Alpha linolenic acid


Erucic acid


Mass of stems at maturity


Nitrogen concentration in stems at maturity


N content of stems at maturity


Mass of siliques at maturity


Nitrogen concentration in siliques at maturity


N content of siliques at maturity


Nitrogen uptake efficiency


Nitrogen utilisation efficiency


Nitrogen use efficiency


Nitrogen harvest index


Ratio of N in plant at maturity to N supplied



The authors thank Markus Kolmer, Annette Plank, Birgit Keiner and Bernd Lehmann for technical support during plant experiments, and Petra Degen and Razvan Atodiresei for valuable help with nitrogen analysis. Furthermore, we thank Eva Herzog and Matthias Frisch for useful comments on the statistical analysis.

The work was funded by Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture 22011112 (Federal Agency for Renewable Resources). Additional support was provided by the Society for the Promotion of Private German Plant Breeding (GFP e.V., Bonn, Germany).

Compliance with ethical standards

Author contribution

RS, WF, BW and AS conceived the research; AS and BW performed the experiments and data analysis; AS and RS wrote the manuscript.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andreas Stahl
    • 1
  • Wolfgang Friedt
    • 1
  • Benjamin Wittkop
    • 1
  • Rod J. Snowdon
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Plant Breeding, IFZ Research Centre for Biosystems, Land Use and NutritionJustus Liebig UniversityGiessenGermany

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