Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound

Bentgrass is undoubtedly the quintessential element of golf courses worldwide. Sure, you'll find bermudagrass greens in warmer climates and even sand greens on some low-budget courses; but for the most part, bentgrass is the premier choice for putting surfaces. If you survey the last hundred years, you'll find that bentgrass has evolved dramatically: starting as common-type grab bags of seed dubbed "South German Bent," moving to vegetative bents developed at the Arlington Turf Gardens in the 1940s, returning to seeded bents with the advent of Penncross and culminating in the proliferation of improved bentgrass types that hit the market in the 80s and 90s.

Characteristics of these improved bentgrasses include greater disease resistance; enhanced tolerance of low mowing, heat and traffic; improved growth characteristics, such as finer texture, higher shoot density and upright growth; and reduced grain development of putting surfaces. I keep waiting for claims that these improved varieties are faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. How much better can they get? A lot better, I predict.

Genetic engineering will bring about a revolution in bentgrasses, with even better pest resistance and tolerance of a wide array of external stresses, such as herbicide applications, environmental factors and traffic. The latest research shows that plants can be made to grow more slowly with a dwarfing gene. The question is: When are these genetically engineered varieties going to be available?

The turfgrass seed market is second only to hybrid corn seed, so you would think that genetically engineered turfgrasses would be lining the shelves by now. But, in fact, genetically engineered turfgrass development lags far behind corn and other crops. According to a 1999 review of the status of transgenic turfgrasses in the scientific journal HortScience, 3,330 permits and notifications were filed with the USDA for genetically engineered organisms (29 percent for herbicide resistance and 24 percent for insect resistance) between 1987 and 1997. By December 1998, only 31 of these were filed for creeping bentgrass and two for Kentucky bluegrass. Hopefully, more emphasis will be put on genetically engineered turfgrasses in the next few years.

Herbicide resistance has been the initial focus of gene transfer in turf. The first application of transformation in turfgrasses was incorporation of glufosinate (AgrEvo's Finale) resistance in creeping bentgrass by researchers at Rutgers in 1996. Scotts, which purchased gene gun technology from Sanford Scientific, is working on bentgrass that is resistant to glyphosate (Roundup). They are about three years away from market release and are conducting field testing. Scotts and Monsanto, owner of the glyphosate-resistance gene, are working together to make this happen.

As additional genes are identified and cloned, myriad traits will probably be introduced into turfgrasses, but we will have to sit tight for a few years before these new varieties hit the market. Don't forget that only 15 years ago, bentgrass choices were severely limited. The proliferation of improved bentgrasses has changed all that. So be patient for the next big step.

You may have guessed that the focus of this issue is on golf courses. Learn more about bentgrass in this issue's opening feature, "Comparing the new bentgrasses," on page 14.

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