Wildflower STDs and Further Proof There’s an App for Everything

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 17 2013 10:27 AM

Wildflower STDs and Further Proof There’s an App for Everything

"Anther smut" is the actual name of an actual wildflower STD
"Anther smut" is the actual name of an actual wildflower STD

Photo courtesy Amherst College.

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.

Advertisement

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.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 16 2014 2:11 PM Spare the Rod What Charles Barkley gets wrong about corporal punishment and black culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.