Facile Coating of Urea With Low-Dose ZnO Nanoparticles Promotes Wheat Performance and Enhances Zn Uptake Under Drought Stress

Front Plant Sci. 2020 Feb 26:11:168. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2020.00168. eCollection 2020.


Zinc oxide nanoparticles (ZnO-NPs) hold promise as novel fertilizer nutrients for crops. However, their ultra-small size could hinder large-scale field application due to potential for drift, untimely dissolution or aggregation. In this study, urea was coated with ZnO-NPs (1%) or bulk ZnO (2%) and evaluated in wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) in a greenhouse, under drought (40% field moisture capacity; FMC) and non-drought (80% FMC) conditions, in comparison with urea not coated with ZnO (control), and urea with separate ZnO-NP (1%) or bulk ZnO (2%) amendment. Plants were exposed to ≤ 2.17 mg/kg ZnO-NPs and ≤ 4.34 mg/kg bulk-ZnO, indicating exposure to a higher rate of Zn from the bulk ZnO. ZnO-NPs and bulk-ZnO showed similar urea coating efficiencies of 74-75%. Drought significantly (p ≤ 0.05) increased time to panicle initiation, reduced grain yield, and inhibited uptake of Zn, nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P). Under drought, ZnO-NPs significantly reduced average time to panicle initiation by 5 days, irrespective of coating, and relative to the control. In contrast, bulk ZnO did not affect time to panicle initiation. Compared to the control, grain yield increased significantly, 51 or 39%, with ZnO-NP-coated or uncoated urea. Yield increases from bulk-ZnO-coated or uncoated urea were insignificant, compared to both the control and the ZnO-NP treatments. Plant uptake of Zn increased by 24 or 8% with coated or uncoated ZnO-NPs; and by 78 or 10% with coated or uncoated bulk-ZnO. Under non-drought conditions, Zn treatment did not significantly reduce panicle initiation time, except with uncoated bulk-ZnO. Relative to the control, ZnO-NPs (irrespective of coating) significantly increased grain yield; and coated ZnO-NPs enhanced Zn uptake significantly. Zn fertilization did not significantly affect N and P uptake, regardless of particle size or coating. Collectively, these findings demonstrate that coating urea with ZnO-NPs enhances plant performance and Zn accumulation, thus potentiating field-scale deployment of nano-scale micronutrients. Notably, lower Zn inputs from ZnO-NPs enhanced crop productivity, comparable to higher inputs from bulk-ZnO. This highlights a key benefit of nanofertilizers: a reduction of nutrient inputs into agriculture without yield penalities.

Keywords: Zn nutrition; ZnO nanoparticle-coated urea; crop performance; drought; micronutrients; nutrient delivery.