Maize morphophysiological responses to intense crowding and low nitrogen availability: an analysis and review

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Mounting concerns over the cost and environmental impact of N fertilizer combined with progressively higher plant densities in maize (Zea mays L.) production systems make progress in maize N use efficiency (NUE) and N stress tolerance essential. The primary objectives of this 3-yr field study were to (i) evaluate the N responsiveness, NUE, and N stress tolerance of multiple modern maize genotypes using suboptimal, optimal, and supraoptimal plant densities (54,000, 79,000, and 104,000 plants ha–1, respectively) with three levels of side-dress N (0, 165, and 330 kg N ha–1), (ii) identify key morphophysiological responses to the simultaneous stresses of intense crowding and low N availability, and (iii) consider our results with extensive reference to literature on maize morphophysiological responses to plant crowding and N availability. At optimal and supraoptimal plant densities, maize receiving 165 kg ha–1 of side-dress N displayed strong N responsiveness, high NUE, pronounced crowding tolerance, and plant density independence. However, crowding tolerance was contingent on N application. Relative to less crowded, N-fertilized environments, the 104,000 plants ha–1, 0 kg N ha–1 treatment combination exhibited (i) reduced pre- and postanthesis plant height (PHT), stem diameter (SD), and total biomass; (ii) greater preflowering leaf senescence and lower R1 leaf areas at individual-leaf, per-plant, and canopy levels; (iii) enhanced floral protandry; (iv) lower pre- and postanthesis leaf-chlorophyll content; (v) lower per-plant kernel number (KNP), individual kernel weight (KW), grain yield per plant (GYP), andharvest index per plant (HIP); and (vi) enhanced per-plant grain yield variability (GYCV). Genetic efforts to improve high plant density tolerance should, therefore, simultaneously focus on enhancing NUE and N stress tolerance.

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