Amherst Magazine

Tracking STDs in Plants

By Peter Rooney

Photos by Rob Mattson

[Biology] Combine a new app with a sexually transmitted disease in wildflowers and what do you get?

With any luck, “citizen scientists” from around the world who will help Associate Professor of Biology Michael Hood with the Wildflower Health Watch, a project to understand more about how disease is spread in natural populations.

Michael Hood in greenhouseMichael Hood

If you’ve hiked in the Rockies, the Sierras, or the Swiss, Italian or Austrian Alps, you may have noticed some wildflowers with unusual dark pollen that blemishes their petals. If so, you’ve observed anther smut, a sexually transmitted flower disease that is becoming a leading model species for scientists to study the biology of infectious diseases.

Because it doesn’t kill the flowers it infects or pose any threat to humans, other animals or economically important plants, and because anther smut and the flowers that carry it can be easily grown in labs, it’s “one of the best disease model systems there is,” says Hood. It even intrigued Charles Darwin.

Closeup of wildflower with anther smut

Now, thanks to a new, free mobile app called weLogger—developed by IT specialists at Amherst—the study of anther smut is set to expand in new directions. With weLogger, anyone who sees an infected flower can take a photo and record video and audio, and the app will automatically log the time and GPS coordinates, then store that information in a custom server application, says Scott Payne, director of Academic Technology Services, who created weLogger with Miodrag Glumac.

Hood hopes that citizen scientists—amateurs who volunteer to gather data for scientific research projects—will download the app, collect images and recordings of flowers with the powdery fungus and contribute that data to the Wildflower Health Watch.  

The app has broader potential, too: It could help anyone with a field research project to quickly log visual, audio, geographic and time data. “Whether moths or mice or birds,” Hood says, “this app allows you to collect a lot of very valuable data and to log that data in a secure way. I haven’t seen anything like it. It’s truly exceptional.”