Key message: We found metabolites, enzyme activities and enzyme transcript abundances vary significantly across the maize lifecycle, but weak correlation exists between the three groups. We identified putative genes regulating nitrate assimilation. Abstract: Progress in improving nitrogen (N) use efficiency (NUE) of crop plants has been hampered by the complexity of the N uptake and utilisation systems. To understand this complexity we measured the activities of seven enzymes and ten metabolites related to N metabolism in the leaf and root tissues of Gaspe Flint maize plants grown in 0.5 or 2.5 mM NO3 − throughout the lifecycle. The amino acids had remarkably similar profiles across the lifecycle except for transient responses, which only appeared in the leaves for aspartate or in the roots for asparagine, serine and glycine. The activities of the enzymes for N assimilation were also coordinated to a certain degree, most noticeably with a peak in root activity late in the lifecycle, but with wide variation in the activity levels over the course of development. We analysed the transcriptional data for gene sets encoding the measured enzymes and found that, unlike the enzyme activities, transcript levels of the corresponding genes did not exhibit the same coordination across the lifecycle and were only weakly correlated with the levels of various amino acids or individual enzyme activities. We identified gene sets which were correlated with the enzyme activity profiles, including seven genes located within previously known quantitative trait loci for enzyme activities and hypothesise that these genes are important for the regulation of enzyme activities. This work provides insights into the complexity of the N assimilation system throughout development and identifies candidate regulatory genes, which warrant further investigation in efforts to improve NUE in crop plants. © 2016, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.