Biological nitrification inhibition (BNI) and plant–microbe competition for ammonium (NH4+) by sorghum (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench) have the potential to suppress nitrification, reducing nitrate (NO3) and nitrous oxide (N2O) production for more sustainable bioenergy feedstock production. However, it is unknown how variability in environmental factors, field management, and plant growth affect the suppression of nitrification. We conducted a field trial with four genotypes of energy sorghum and four fertilization rates in central Illinois, USA, and measured soil N pools, potential nitrification and denitrification rates, and microbial community composition in bulk and rhizosphere soils to assess nitrification suppression throughout the 2018 and 2019 growing seasons. Concentrations of NO3 and NH4+ were very low in rhizosphere soil regardless of fertilization level, suggesting strong N demand by plants and microbes. Potential nitrification was lower in the rhizosphere soil than bulk soil, and this suppression was strongest mid-season ~2 months after planting in both years (20% suppression in 2018 and 58% in 2019). Since precipitation was lower during the mid-growing season of 2019 compared to 2018, we speculate that hydrophilic BNI root exudates accumulated in the rhizosphere and suppressed nitrification more than in 2018 when soil moisture was higher. Unfertilized plots had greater nitrification suppression than fertilized plots during the mid-season in 2018, but otherwise nitrification suppression was insensitive to fertilizer treatment. Potential denitrification was stimulated in the rhizosphere compared to bulk soil in both study years, suggesting that heterotrophic activity was stimulated by plant carbon inputs, possibly further suppressing slower-growing chemoautotrophic nitrifying microbes. Overall, we found inter- and intra-annual variation in nitrification suppression in the rhizosphere of field-grown biomass sorghum, suggesting that plant phenology and environmental conditions should be considered when devising strategies to improve the nitrogen sustainability of this annual bioenergy crop.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)393-410
Number of pages18
JournalGCB Bioenergy
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2022


  • bioenergy
  • biological nitrification inhibition
  • denitrification
  • nitrification
  • rhizosphere
  • sorghum

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment


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