Differential Regulation of Kernel Set and Potential Kernel Weight by Nitrogen Supply and Carbohydrate Availability in Maize Genotypes Contrasting in Nitrogen Use Efficiency
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Original versionFrontiers in Plant Science. 2020, 11 . 10.3389/fpls.2020.00586
Sub-optimal nitrogen (N) conditions reduce maize yield due to a decrease in two sink components: kernel set and potential kernel weight. Both components are established during the lag phase, suggesting that they could compete for resources during this critical period. However, whether this competition occurs or whether different genotypic strategies exist to optimize photoassimilate use during the lag phase is not clear and requires further investigation. We have addressed this knowledge gap by conducting a nutrient solution culture experiment that allows abrupt changes in N level and light intensity during the lag phase. We investigated plant growth, dry matter partitioning, non-structural carbohydrate concentration, N concentration, and 15N distribution (applied 4 days before silking) in plant organs at the beginning and the end of the lag phase in two maize hybrids that differ in grain yield under N-limited conditions: one is a nitrogen-use-efficient (EFFI) genotype and the other is a control (GREEN) genotype that does not display high N use efficiency. We found that the two genotypes used different mechanisms to regulate kernel set. The GREEN genotype showed a reduction in kernel set associated with reduced dry matter allocation to the ear during the lag phase, indicating that the reduced kernel set under N-limited conditions was related to sink restrictions. This idea was supported by a negative correlation between kernel set and sucrose/total sugar ratios in the kernels, indicating that the capacity for sucrose cleavage might be a key factor defining kernel set in the GREEN genotype. By contrast, the kernel set of the EFFI genotype was not correlated with dry matter allocation to the ear or to a higher capacity for sucrose cleavage; rather, it showed a relationship with the different EFFI ear morphology with bigger kernels at the apex of the ear than in the GREEN genotype. The potential kernel weight was independent of carbohydrate availability but was related to the N flux per kernel in both genotypes. In conclusion, kernel set and potential kernel weight are regulated independently, suggesting the possibility of simultaneously increasing both sink components in maize.