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[BioZoom nr. 1, 2009]

Biofortification of Cereal Grains with Zinc by Applying Zinc Fertilizers
Ismail Cakmak, Sabanci University, Faculty of Engineering and Natural Sciences, 34956 Istanbul, Turkey.

Zinc is an essential micronutrient for biological systems. One of the critical physiological roles of Zn in biological systems is its
role in protein synthesis and metabolism. In biological systems Zn is required by largest number of proteins. It has been
estimated that nearly 2800 human proteins are capable of binding Zn which corresponds to 10 % of human proteome (Andreini
et al., 2006). Almost 40% of the Zn-binding proteins are transcription factors needed for gene regulation and the 60%
enzymes and proteins involved in ion transport (Andreini et al. 2006). Zinc is also a critical micronutrient required for
structural and functional integrity of biological membranes and for detoxification of highly aggressive free radicals (Cakmak,
2000). Any alteration in Zn homeostasis or any decrease in Zn concentration of human body will, therefore, result in number
of cellular disturbances and impairments such as i) immune dysfunctions and high susceptibility to infectious diseases, ii)
retardation of mental development and iii) stunted growth of children (Black et al., 2008).
In recent years Zn deficiency receives an increasing attention not only by nutritionists and medical scientists, but also by
economists and social scientists. Zinc deficiency problem has been recognized as a very serious threat to human health,
especially to child health. Together with vitamin A deficiency, Zn deficiency has been considered as the top priority problem
facing the world currently by eight worldwide distinguished economists (including five Nobel Laureates) at the Copenhagen
Consensus Conference ( The economists believe that elimination of Zn deficiency problem
will result in very high and quick impacts for humanity and global stability. Children are particularly sensitive to Zn deficiency.
Zinc deficiency has been shown to be a major cause of child death in the world, and responsible for nearly 450,000 deaths in
children under 5 years of age, that corresponds to 4.4 % of the deaths of children less than 5 years of age globally (Black et
al., 2008).
Zinc Deficiency: A Global Nutritional Problem
It is estimated that nearly half of the world population is affected from Zn deficiency as a consequence of low dietary intake of
Zn. High consumption of cereal-based foods with low amount and bioavailability of Zn seems to be major reason for high
prevalence of Zn deficiency in human populations, especially in developing world. In most of the developing countries cereal
grains, especially wheat and rice, contributes to about 70 % of the daily calorie intake. Today, billions of poor people rely on
cereal-based foods as their predominant calorie and protein source. Cereals are, however, inherently very low in
concentrations of Zn to meet daily requirement of humans (Cakmak, 2008). The Zn deficiency problem in cereal grains is
aggravated by growing cereal crops on potentially Zn deficient soils. Soil Zn deficiency is also a well-documented problem that
reduces crop production. Under Zn-deficient soil conditions, plants show a high susceptibility to environmental stress factors
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such as drought stress and pathogenic infections, and develop severe symptoms such leaf necrosis and stunting growth (Figure
1). Consequently, Zn deficiency results in significant decreases in plant performance to grow and yield better, as shown in
various countries such as in India, Pakistan, Australia and China (Alloway, 2007).
Figure 1: Effect of zinc fertilizer application on wheat growth on a zinc-deficient soil in
Central Anatolia (see for further detail: Cakmak et al., 1999)
It is estimated that about 50 % of the cereal-cultivated soils globally contain low amounts of plant available Zn, leading to
further decreases in grain Zn concentration. Figure 2 shows the regions/countries where Zn deficiency has been reported as an
important micronutrient deficiency in soils and an important constraint to crop production. It is, therefore, not surprising why
a widespread Zn deficiency in human beings generally occurs in the regions where soils have Zn deficiency problem and
cereals are major source of daily calorie intake (Cakmak. 2008).
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Figure 2: Global distribution of Zn-deficiency affected regions (Alloway, 2007)
Increasing Grain Zinc: A Global Challenge
Currently, increasing Zn concentration of cereal grains is a big global challenge. Among the interventions to improve Zn
nutrition of human beings, plant breeding strategy is becoming a widely accepted, cost-effective and easily affordable solution
in the target populations. Currently, numbers of breeding programs are on-going to develop new cereal genotypes with high
genetical ability to absorb Zn (and also other micronutrients such as Fe) from soil and accumulate in grain at desired levels for
human nutrition. HarvestPlus Biofortification challenge program ( is the leading global program aiming
at improving stable food crops with Zn, Fe and vitamin A by using plant breeding strategy (Pfeiffer and McClafferty, 2007).
This program is, currently, progressing well with very promising results.
Breeding program is, however, a long-term process requiring number of crossing and back-crossing activities over many
years, and its success depends on the stability of the targeted micronutrient trait under various environmental conditions. In
addition, the cultivated soils have number of chemical and physical problems which reduce chemical solubility and availability
of Zn in soils and thus restrict ability of roots to absorb adequate amount of Zn from soils. Among the chemical factors, high
soil pH, low soil moisture and low organic matter are the most critical factors reducing solubility and root absorption of Zn.
For example, an increase in soil pH from 6 to 7 is responsible for about 30-fold decrease in solubility of Zn in soil which in turn
results in significant decreases in plant concentrations of Zn. Similar impairments in root absorption of Zn also take place in
soils with limited moisture level and low amounts of organic matter. In Turkey, Zn deficiency is a well-documented problem in
Central Anatolia (Cakmak et al., 1999) where annual rainfall is too low (around 300 mm) and wheat production is dominating.
In this region, based on the collected 78 soil samples, the mean value of soil pH is extremely high (7.9) ranging between 7.5
to 8.1 and the content of soil organic matter is very low (averaged 1.5 %). Very similar soil conditions have been also
reported for majority of cereal-cultivated soils in many countries, such as in China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Australia.
As expected, under soil conditions having such adverse chemical problems, the genetic capacity of the newly developed
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Figure 3: Efect of various Zn application methods
on grain zinc concentration of wheat grown in
Central Anatolia (see Yilmaz et al., 1997 for further
(biofortified) plant genotypes to absorb adequate amount of Zn from soil and accumulate in grain may not be expressed at
desired level. It is, therefore, important to maintain adequate amount of available Zn in soil, and this can be achieved by
applying Zn-containing fertilizers.
Agronomic Biofortification
Application of Zn fertilizers to soil and/or foliar seems to be a practical
approach to improving grain Zn concentration (e.g., agronomic
biofortification). Very recently, a global zinc fertilizer project has been
initiated, so called HarvestZinc project ( under
HarvestPlus program. This project aims at evaluating the potential of
Zn-containing fertilizers for increasing Zn concentration of cereal grains
(e.g., wheat, rice and wheat) and improving crop production in different
target countries (e.g., India, China, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey,
Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Brazil). The zinc fertilizer strategy represents
an important complementary approach to on-going breeding programs for
developing new genotypes with high Zn density in grain. As described in
HarvestZinc project (, biofortification of cereal grains
through use of Zn fertilizers (e.g., agronomic biofortification) is required for
i) keeping sufficient amount of available Zn in soil solution, ii) maintaining
adequate Zn transport to the seeds during reproductive growth stage and
iii) optimizing the success of biofortification of staple food crops with Zn
through use of breeding tools.
Increasing evidence is available indicating that soil and/or foliar
applications of Zn fertilizers greatly contribute to grain Zn concentrations
(Cakmak, 2008). In the past, numerous studies have been published on
the role of soil- and foliar-applied Zn fertilizers in order to correct Zn
deficiency and increase yield. However, there are only few studies that
investigated the effects of Zn fertilizers on grain-Zn concentrations (or in other edible parts). Zinc sulfate (ZnSO4) is the widely
applied source of Zn because of its high solubility and low cost. In Central Anatolia, application of ZnSO4 fertilizers was very
effective in increasing grain Zn concentration of wheat. Applying Zn fertilizer into soil doubled grain Zn concentrations (Figure
3). As presented in Figure 3, foliarly-applied Zn resulted in much greater increases in grain Zn concentration than the soil
application of Zn. It seems that combined application of soil and foliar Zn fertilizers is the most effective way to maximize
grain Zn accumulation. Besides improving grain Zn concentrations, these soil or foliar Zn applications resulted also in
significant increases in plant growth (Figure 4) and grain yield in various locations in Central Anatolia (Cakmak et al., 1996).
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Figure 4: Effect of foliar applied Zn on growth of barley plants in Central Anatolia (see
Cakmak et al., 1996 for further information)
Due to significant effects of Zn fertilizers on grain yield production in Central Anatolia, farmers showed a growing interest in
Zn-containing fertilizers in Turkey since the mid of 1990s. In the past 10-15 years increasing amount of Zn-supplemented
fertilizers has been produced and applied in Turkey, especially in Central Anatolia. The total amount of Zn-containing
compound fertilizers applied in Turkey increased from zero in 1994 to a record level of 400 000 tonnes per annum (Figure 5).
Use of such high amounts of Zn-containing fertilizers increases in grain Zn concentration, and obviously contributes to human
health and nutrition in Turkey, especially in rural areas where wheat provides more than 50 % of the daily calorie intake
(Cakmak, 2008). Little information is, however, available about the effectiveness of Zn-containing compound fertilizers in
improving grain Zn concentrations in other countries. In India, Zn-enriched urea fertilizers are becoming an important source
for Zn application to wheat and rice. Applying Zn-coated urea fertilizers (up to 3 % Zn) increased both grain yield and grain Zn
concentration in rice (Shivay et al., 2008; Table 1).
Treatments Zn Added Grain Yield Zn Concentration
(kg ha
) (ton ha
) (mg kg
Prilled Urea - 3,87 27
0.5% ZEU 1,3 4,23 29
1.0% 2,6 4,39 33
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2.0% 5,2 4,60 39
3.0% 7,8 4,76 42
Table 1: Effect of Zn-enriched urea (ZEU) (up to 3 % Zn in urea) on grain yield and grain Zn concentrations
of aromatic rice grown in India. Data show average values of 2-year field trials. For more details see Shivay
et al. (2008).
Recent studies also indicate that intercropping systems contribute to grain Zn and Fe concentrations. Various field tests in
China with peanut/maize and chickpea/wheat intercropping systems showed that gramineaceous species are highly beneficial
in biofortfying dicots with micronutrients. In the case of chickpea/wheat intercropping, Zn concentration of the wheat grains
was 2.8-fold higher than those of wheat under monocropping (Zuo and Zhang, 2009). In many wheat-cultivated countries,
continuous wheat cropping is a widely used cropping system. Inclusion of legumes in the crop rotation system may contribute
to grain concentrations of wheat plants. Elevated soil organic matter content of soils up to a certain level improves solubility
and root uptake of Zn, especially in alkaline soils. There are several reports on combined applications of Zn fertilizers together
with organic materials (like farmyard manure and green manures) being particularly effective in facilitating Zn uptake by roots
and correcting Zn deficiency (Cakmak, 2008).
Figure 5: Use of Zn-containing NP and NPK fertilizers in Turkey (source:
Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and TOROS Fertilizer and Chemical Industry,
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Agronomic approaches such as application of Zn-containing fertilizers appear to be a rapid and simple solution to the Zn
deficiency problem. Combination of breeding and fertilizer strategies is an excellent complementary approach to alleviate
zinc-deficiency related problems in human nutrition. New research programs are needed to develop or improve Zn application
methods in terms of form, dose, and application time of Zn fertilizers. It is important to highlight that use of agronomic
biofortification approach to improve grain Zn concentrations might be limited in various developing countries/regions, because
resource-poor farmers (e.g., in Africa) cannot afford application of mineral fertilizers, especially micronutrient fertilizers.
Under such situations plant breeding becomes a high priority approach to the problem
Alloway BJ. 2007: Zinc in Soils and Crop Nutrition. IZA Publications. International Zinc Association, Brussels
Andreini C, Banci L, Rosato A (2006) Zinc through the three domains of life. J Proteome Res 5:3173 -3178
Black RE. 2003: Zinc deficiency, infectious disease and mortality in the developing world. J Nutr 133:1485-1489
Cakmak I. 2000: Role of zinc in protecting plant cells from reactive oxygen species. New Phytol 146:185205
Cakmak I. 2008: Enrichment of cereal grains with zinc: Agronomic or genetic biofortification? Plant and Soil 302: 1-17.
Cakmak I, Yilmaz A, Ekiz H, Torun B, Erenoglu B, Braun HJ. 1996: Zinc deficiency a
critical nutritional problem in wheat production in Central Anatolia. Plant Soil 180:165172
Cakmak I, Kalayci M, Ekiz H, Braun HJ, Yilmaz A. 1999: Zinc deficiency as an actual
problem in plant and human nutrition in Turkey: A NATO-Science for Stability Project. Field
Crops Res 60:175188
Pfeiffer WH, McClafferty B. 2007: HarvestPlus: breeding crops for better nutrition. Crop Science 47: S88S105
Shivay YS, Kumar D, Prasad R. 2008: Effect of zinc-enriched urea on productivity, zinc uptake and efficiency of an aromatic
rice-wheat cropping system. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 81:229-243
Yilmaz A, Ekiz H, Torun B, Gultekin I, Karanlik S, Bagci SA, Cakmak I. 1997: Effect of different zinc application methods on
grain yield and zinc concentration in wheat grown on zinc-deficient calcareous soils in Central Anatolia. J Plant Nutr 20:461471
Zuo Y, Zhang F. 2009: Iron and zinc biofortification strategies in dicot plants by intercropping with gramineous species. A
review. Agron Sust Dev 29: 63-71

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Opdateret: 15.03.2009
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