A Hybrid Supergrass that Looks Great on Less Water

Your perfectly manicured lawn is good for more than croquet: The lawns in the U.S. could trap enough carbon every year to offset the emissions from burning 1.9 billion gallons of gasoline. Unfortunately, it takes seven billion gallons of water a day to keep these lawns lush. That's why Jim Baird, a turf scientist at the University of California at Riverside, is bioengineering a grass that drinks less and still earns praise at your barbecue.

Baird's trick requires combining the rich emerald hues and "traffic tolerance" of perennial rye grass with the heat- and drought-resistance of meadow fescue, a tall grass normally not used for lawns. A deep root structure helps the new grass suck up water that other popular lawn grasses can't reach, cutting its dependence on sprinklers by 10 percent.

The process is a sort of gladiator academy for grass. First, a geneticist labels each grass's chromosomes with a different color of fluorescent dye and crossbreeds the two species in a field. Researchers collect the seeds, grow the hybrid plants in hydroponic tanks, and replant them outside. Then they turn off the water and see which strains survive. Baird's team examines the combination of fluorescent genes in each survivor to learn which ones are most important for withstanding drought.

The project promises green grass all year round—not just for your yard but also for golf courses, parks and athletic fields—that will thrive anywhere from the Arizona desert to the Northeast. The group is currently selecting the best gene combinations and figuring out how to ensure that the traits pass to the next generation. If this summer's drought tests go as planned, Baird hopes to mass-produce seeds by 2012.--Arnie Cooper