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

Future Tense
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

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 21 2014 11:27 AM There Is Now a Real-life Hoverboard You Can Preorder for $10,000
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 21 2014 12:40 PM Asamkirche: The Rococo Church Where Death Hides in Plain Sight
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.