May 06, 2006
Discoveries Point Way To Mow-Less Lawns?

The best known ways we reduce the amount of work humans do is by developing equipment that automates a task. That approach tends be much more visible than other methods for eliminating human work because we can see the automated equipment at work in factories and other work settings. But a far more powerful and less appreciated way to raise living standards is to reduce or even entirely eliminate the need to perform a task in the first place.

While some argue about the difficulty of developing totally automated lawn mowers a better way to eliminate the need for human labor in lawn mowing is to genetically engineer lawn grass to grow to a fixed lower maximum height. Recent discoveries about the brassinosteroids in plants point the way toward lawn grass that doesn't grow as tall and does not have to be mowed.

For anyone tethered to a lawnmower, the Holy Grail of horticultural accomplishment would be grass that never grows but is always green.

Now, that vision of suburban bliss—and more—seems plausible as scientists have mapped a critical hormone signaling pathway that regulates the stature of plants. In addition to lawns that rarely require mowing, the finding could also enable the development of sturdier, more fruitful crop plants such as rice, wheat, soybeans, and corn.

In a paper published in the May 4, 2006, issue of the journal Nature, Howard Hughes Medical Institute scientists report they have deciphered the signaling pathway for a key class of steroid hormones that regulates growth and development in plants.

"By manipulating the steroid pathway…we think we can regulate plant stature and yield," said Joanne Chory, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the senior author of the new report.

Manipulation of plant stature has been a longstanding goal in horticulture, agronomy, and forestry. The ability to precisely control plant size would have broad implications for everything from urban forestry to crop and garden plant development. Beyond perpetually short grass, trees could be made more compact for better growth in crowded cities, and berry bushes could be made taller for ease of harvesting.

Imagine future spray-on gene therapy treatments where once you get your hedges shaped just like you want it you spray the hedges once and they cease to extend new branches for a couple of years. No more need for hedge pruning.

Genetic engineering of regulatory regions in the brassinosteroid pathway might be the ticket for producing mow-free lawn grasses.

"We might be able to dwarf grass and keep it green by limiting brassinosteroids or increase the yield of rice by having more brassinosteroids in seeds," Chory said.

Biotechnological advances will provide ways to grow food in backyard gardens with less labor while also cutting back on yard labor.

What is the best way to reduce the labor for ironing clothes? Make automated ironing machines? Of course not. Make clothes that do not need ironing. What is the best way to reduce the labor needed for home repair? Develop robots? Again, of course not. Make building materials that last decades longer. What is the best way to keep cars clean? Develop automated cleaning machines? No, make surfaces with nanomaterials that dirt can't stick to or surfaces that can clean themselves. Advances in nanotechnologies and biotechnologies will provide us with lower maintenance textiles, cars, houses, lawns, and other items we use in our daily lives.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 May 06 08:56 PM  Biotech Automation

Engineer-Poet said at May 6, 2006 10:29 PM:

It should be called "Eenie, Meenie, Minie" grass, because there ain't no mow.

Garson Poole said at May 7, 2006 4:40 AM:

If a householder really sought a major reduction in the labor required to maintain a lawn then he or she could dig up the pernicious time-wasting vegetation and replace it with synthetic turf resembling grass, e.g., Astroturf. But this is very rarely done and many observers would react with extreme disgust. Complainants would cry that the synthetic turf is obscenely unnatural. Yet, a conventional lawn is arguably even more unnatural. The grass seed is often not native to area, and the ground is typically contoured to provide an exaggerated flatness. Trees, rocks, boulders and other outcroppings are often removed. The lawn becomes a grotesquely stylized veldt that is alien to nature. To supplement this unnaturalness there is often a residual geometric pattern after mowing.

Actually, I like lawns ;-). But, I wrote the paragraph above to provide an introductory flourish to a theory of lawns. The real point of a lawn is that it is difficult to maintain. Cutting the lawn, keeping it nicely green, providing water and fertilizer, and removing invading weeds takes considerable resources and effort. Hence, the lawn in reality functions as form of “conspicuous consumption”. It allows the householder to signal economic and social status (see Thorstein Veblen).

What does this imply about grass that is engineered to grow to a limited height? It is conceivable that the grass could become popular if environmentalists could somehow be placated to allow the release of an engineered “cosmetic” grass. But the labor saving aspect would lead to a paradoxical reaction. Lawns would become more elaborate in some other way so that additional resources would be required. Perhaps a fancy garden would become mandatory for suburbanites, or maybe expensive self-sculpting topiary plants would become fashionable.

Garson Poole said at May 7, 2006 5:19 AM:

Blog readers might enjoy this anticipatory literary reference from “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury published in 1957.

"They got a new kind of grass Bill Forrester's putting in this morning, never needs cutting. Don't know what they call it, but it just grows so long and no longer."
Grandpa stared at the woman. "You're finding a poor! way to joke with me."
"Go look for yourself. Land's sake," said Grandma, "it was Bill Forrester's idea. The new grass is waiting in little flats by the side of the house. You just dig small holes here and there and put the new grass in spots. By the end of the year the new grass kills off the old, and you sell your lawn mower."…
"I've seen the stuff growing in California. Only so high and no higher. If it survives our climate it'll save us getting out here next year, once a week, to keep the darned stuff trimmed."…
Bill kicked one of the grass flats slightly and nodded. "About this grass now. I didn't finish telling. It grows so close it's guaranteed to kill off clover and dandelions--"

Richard said at May 7, 2006 6:45 AM:

"It should be called "Eenie, Meenie, Minie" grass, because there ain't no mow."

EP, Keep the day blog.

Richard said at May 7, 2006 6:50 AM:

I spent my childhood mowing our lawn (the largest in our working class suburban neighborhood) and swore I would never mow a lawn when I grew up. I've kept my promise by having cows graze off the lawn and raising my own beef, dairy etc. For me this is not a good idea. More scientific money should be spent on Aubrey de Gray's anti aging efforts than on keeping lawns neat. Sell the mowers and enjoy minimalist landscaping.

Ivan Kirigin said at May 7, 2006 11:50 AM:

I tend to agree about making devices and materials intelligent. But I think you are a bit off in time frame.

I would say 5-15 years for laborer replacement robots, and 10 years more than that for broad nanotech. Also, a robot that can be taught a job can be used for multple purposes.

Jim said at May 10, 2006 11:46 AM:

what about inventing grass that doesn't go yellow when my dog pisses in the same spot repeatedly?

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