Amherst Magazine

Work in Progress

By Emily Gold Boutilier

image

Even plants get sexually transmitted diseases. Anther smut, for example, is a disease that, although harmless in humans, replaces a plant’s pollen with fungal spores; bees and butterflies then transmit the fungus, just as they would pollen, from plant to plant. The disease renders the plant sterile.

Because anther smut is a disease of the reproductive structures, and because it’s transmitted during what would normally be mating, it has the potential to reveal much about STDs in humans and other animals. In addition, because it frequently forms pathogen hybrids, anther smut can help explain how other illnesses, such as the flu, can evolve over time.

With student researchers, Assistant Professor of Biology Michael Hood has been watching anther smut progress in flowers in his lab and greenhouse and studying it as it spreads from one plant to another. He and his students are also examining the disease’s genomic properties and the evolution of its chromosome structure.

In March, Hood received a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation to continue his research on the disease’s transmission and genomics. In May, he received a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship to support his research on the disease’s evolution and global reach.

On leave in 2008-09, Hood will continue to work in the lab and greenhouse and to gather samples of the fungus Microbrytum, which causes anther smut. He will also resume his visits to natural history collections around the world, where he’ll extract DNA from specimens of plants that have anther smut, observing how the disease has changed over history. Some of the plant specimens are as much as 150 years old. 

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04