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Mow no more? Dwarf grass in scientists' sights

Scientists have mapped a hormone-signaling pathway that regulates plant height, a development that could lead to improvements in food crops and a lawn that doesn't need mowing.

Imagine if your lawn was always green and never needed mowing.

That's the goal of new research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where scientists have mapped a hormone-signaling pathway that regulates plant height. The work could lead to sturdier rice, wheat, corn and soybean crops, as well as grass that rarely if ever needs mowing.

"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.

The research was detailed last week in the journal Nature.

Chory and colleague Gregory Vert studied a family of plant hormones known as brassinosteroids, which other labs have been toying with, too.

"Without them, plants are tiny dwarves, with reduced vasculature and roots, and are infertile," Chory explained.

Hormones govern cellular development. Reshaping the chain of command could force plants to grow in certain ways.

"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.

Humans have for centuries manipulated plant size and other characteristics by selective breeding. Controlling hormones presents a modern method of achieving further change.