When it came time for your parents or your guidance counselor to scare you away from unprotected sex, they may have likened your virginity to a precious flower. But I doubt the birds-and-bees talk mentioned that even pretty little posies get sexually transmitted diseases. And because plant diseases can help us study human diseases, researchers have developed a smartphone app that uses crowdsourcing to track the spread of certain botanical blight.
STDs aren’t some fickle god’s punishment for promiscuity—they’re life forms trying to make a living. And it’s not just us. Animals and plants are also plagued by STDs, though in the case of plants the “sex” part gets a little complicated. Plants are mostly static. For them to bump uglies, they require the help of myriad pollinators like bees, moths, birds, bats, and anything else that gets up close and personal with pollen. In this case, it’s actually the wingmen that spread the STDs.
And when a little pink wildflower gets a bad case of anther smut, everybody knows. Aside from having the perfect name for a plant STD, anther smut is a parasitic fungus that causes dark, inky powder to radiate out from the plant’s anthers. (Anthers are the business end of the stamen, a plant’s reproductive organ where pollen is made.) Anther smut gets around by producing a sex change in the flowers, causing “female” plants that should only have an ovary to instead produce black, infected anthers for pollinators to nuzzle up against. According to Amherst biologist Michael Hood, the sex-change aspect is one of the oldest observations of the disease, but “how the fungus manipulates the hormone balance to change a female plant into one with male organs is still a great mystery.”
Because the infection is so noticeable, Hood and a team of researchers at Amherst College have developed a citizen science Web app to track the spread of the fungus. Anyone who spots the STD lurking in the Rockies, Sierras, and Alps can upload images, video, or audio—anther smut is apparently so easy to identify, the researchers are literally willing to take your word for it—and the app will automatically add GPS coordinates, time, and date information and store everything in a database for research purposes. Other researchers are welcome to tailor the data to their own research purposes through a custom Google Maps application. The app may also have interesting applications beyond plants.
“One could just as easily use the app to collect data on observation of diseases or disease vectors (ticks or type of disease-transmitting biting flies),” said Hood in an email. Hood is currently in the field high up in the Alps collecting more data, but he says the app has already attracted interested from researchers studying other diseases and even species conservation projects. The app, which the researchers have dubbed weLogger, is currently in beta, but should be available in the Apple App Store soon.
Whether it’s whale sharks or earthquakes, crowd sourcing is both rapidly making data available to the scientific community and breaking down barriers about who can contribute to scientific discovery. And hey, if it can spread awareness about the dangers of letting just any old bumblebee near your stamen, all the better.