Rice is the most important crop species on earth, providing staple food for 70% of the world's human population. Over the past four decades, successes in classical breeding, fertilization, pest control, irrigation and expansion of arable land have massively increased global rice production, enabling crop scientists and farmers to stave off anticipated famines. If current projections for human population growth are correct, however, present rice yields will be insufficient within a few years. Rice yields will have to increase by an estimated 60% in the next 30 years, or global food security will be in danger. The classical methods of previous green revolutions alone will probably not be able to meet this challenge, without being coupled to recombinant DNA technology. Here, we focus on the promise of these modern technologies in the area of nitrogen acquisition in rice, recognizing that nitrogen deficiency compromises the realization of rice yield potential in the field more than any other single factor. We summarize rice-specific advances in four key areas of research: (1) nitrogen fixation, (2) primary nitrogen acquisition, (3) manipulations of internal nitrogen metabolism, and (4) interactions between nitrogen and photosynthesis. We develop a model for future plant breeding possibilities, pointing out the importance of coming to terms with the complex interactions among the physiological components under manipulation, in the context of ensuring proper targeting of intellectual and financial resources in this crucial area of research. BioEssays 26:683–692, 2004. © 2004 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.