As nitrogen fertilizer prices rise across the country, a research team that includes scientists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has secured new resources and partners as they work to reduce the amount of nitrogen that crops such as sorghum and maize need to reach their maximum yield potential.
The National Science Foundation recently provided additional funding for the project, which received $ 3.9 million in 2018 for a four-year collaborative project between Nebraska and the Alabama-based HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.
The two-year supplement will fund the expansion of the partnership to include Alabama A&M University and support field trials and tests, which will build on the project’s early research conducted in controlled environments such as the Greenhouse Innovation Center. of the Nebraska Innovation Campus.
Recent increases in the price of nitrogen fertilizers, a critical input for farmers growing crops in Nebraska and around the world, underscore the need for new crop varieties that can produce more grain with less fertilizer. Soaring energy prices, high transportation costs, rising tariffs and extreme weather events are pushing nitrogen fertilizer production and distribution costs to new heights.
At the same time, concerns are growing about the effects of nitrogen fertilizer runoff on rural drinking water quality and ecosystem services. The situation highlights the challenges facing Nebraska farmers and producers around the world as they strive to increase the food supply to meet the demand of an estimated 10 billion people. ‘by 2050.
“Increased efficiency is one of the very few potential benefits for everyone in agriculture,” says James Schnable, professor of agronomy at Charles O. Gardner. He leads the Nebraska team, which also includes Tom Clemente; Eugene W. Price, distinguished professor of biotechnology; Yufeng Ge, Harold W. Eberhard Distinguished Professor of Biological Systems Engineering; and Jinliang Yang, assistant professor of agronomy and horticulture.
“Crops that use nitrogen more efficiently maintain or increase crop yields while reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture and at the same time increasing farmers’ profits per acre,” said Schnable . “At current anhydrous ammonia prices, many Nebraska farmers will have to spend over $ 100 an acre on nitrogen fertilizers next year. “
In the next phase of the project, the team will move from studying the genetic regulatory networks of a sorghum line known as Tx430 to performing field trials using a set of 406 varieties of sorghum assembled from all over the world. Researchers will grow the lines under sufficient, nitrogen-deficient conditions, planting both in the temperate environments of Nebraska and in the subtropical conditions of Alabama.
Throughout the season, they will collect data on sorghum characteristics associated with yield using manual measurements, high throughput phenotyping measurements and automated drone phenotyping. These measurements will be used to identify genes and gene regulatory networks associated with the tolerance or development of different sorghum lines in different situations.
“We started working with sorghum in 2018 for two reasons,” said Schnable. “The first is that it can grow on marginal cropland where crops like corn would not have enough water to thrive. But sorghum is also much more resistant to nitrogen shortages than maize. In my field trials, some treatment can make the maize look sickly and yellow, but the untrained eye would not be able to tell the difference between plots of sorghum with and without fertilizer before harvest.
“While the goal of this project is to determine how sorghum adapts to soils with low nitrogen content, I hope the results we generate will also serve as a roadmap for making maize more efficient as well. “
The partnership with Alabama A&M, a historically Black university that grants land, reflects the Nebraska Center for Plant Science Innovation’s priority to strengthen collaboration between the university and researchers and students at historically Black universities.
NSF funding will help Alabama A&M undergraduates conduct research in Nebraska and HudsonAlpha during the summer, thus diversifying the portfolio of future graduate students and agroscience researchers.
The collaboration will also allow contingents from Nebraska and HudsonAlpha to share their expertise in digital and precision agriculture, including the use of drones and other high-tech instruments, such as robots, cameras and laser scanners, to assess the physical characteristics of plants. They will work with Alabama A&M’s Ernst Cebert and Xianyan Kuang to build that institution’s capacity for automated drone phenotyping, the uptake of which is a priority for Alabama A&M.
“Alabama A&M is thrilled to be a part of this NSF-funded project,” said Cebert, who heads the Winfred Thomas agricultural research station at the university. “In addition to playing a role in such a scientific and environmental impacting project, it is also important for us to contribute to the training of the future workforce in biosciences. “
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