Citizen Science app’s first mission: track a sexually transmitted wildflower disease that intrigued Darwin

July 9, 2013 • Article by Peter Rooney

AMHERST, Mass. – Combine a new app with a sexually transmitted disease in wildflowers that a prominent scientist calls the best model system for studying disease and what do you get?

Hopefully, Citizen Scientists from around the world who will help Michael Hood, a biology professor at Amherst College, with the Wildflower Health Watch, a project to understand more about how disease is spread in natural populations.

If you’ve ever hiked in the Rockies, the Sierras or in the European Alps you may have noticed pink wildflowers with unusual dark pollen that blemishes on their petals.

Wildflower with smut. (Photo credit: Michael Hood)

If so, you’ve observed anther smut, a sexually transmitted flower disease that is quickly becoming a leading model species for scientists to study the biology of infectious diseases. The dark powder in the anthers is actually a parasitic fungus that is spread from plant to plant by insect pollinators. Because it doesn’t actually 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 them can easily be grown in labs, it presents an exceptional study system, said Michael Hood, a professor of biology at Amherst College who specializes in disease ecology and evolutionary genomics.

“It’s one of the best model disease systems there is,” he said, noting that it’s intrigued naturalists, including Charles Darwin, for many years, partly because of the parasites ability to induce an apparent sex change in female flowers with the development of anthers. “It’s remarkably good for both the ecology and the evolution of disease and for the genetics of the pathogen itself.”

And, Hood noted that in recent years, scholarly citations of anther smut have increased dramatically, as knowledge about the model system has progressed, along with heightened interest in tracking the global spread of disease.

Michael Hood

Now, thanks to a new, and free, app called weLogger developed by Scott Payne and Miodrag Glumac of Academic Technology Services at Amherst College, the study of anther smut is set to expand in new directions. Payne, Director of Academic Technology Services at Amherst, said the new app has the potential to help anyone with a field research project quickly log visual, audio, geographic and time data.

“weLogger allows the user to take an image, video or audio and the app automatically logs GPS coordinates, time and date and then stores that information in a custom server application we are giving away with the app,” Payne said. “weLogger works with the custom Google Maps application to offer a global perspective of whatever is being studied.”

Hood hopes Citizen Scientists will hear about his interest in the spread of anther-smut disease, download the weLogger app and use it to contribute data to the Wildflower Health Watch. By integrating field research he’s conducting in the southern Alps, and numerous current and former students, the data will yield greater insight about the dispersal of infectious diseases and their impacts on host populations.

“The amazing thing about the app Scott and Miodrag built is that it is so easily used to create custom data forms to suit a particular research project,” Hood said. “You can study distribution and abundance of anything with it. Whether moths, or mice or birds, this app allows you to collects 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.”

Miodrag Glumac and Scott Payne

As word about weLogger spreads, Hood said there has been “a lot of interest and excitement” about it in the community of ecology researchers.

“Citizen Science is in the early stages of dramatic growth and this app has the potential to accelerate that process even further,” he said. “Apps like this will allow for data collection over a broad geographic area, of the kind that has helped provide a better understanding of things such as parasites of monarch butterflies, ants species, and in the case of my research, the spread of disease in natural plant communities.”

Hood’s research in Alps this summer, along with collaborator Janis Antonovics at the University of Virginia, will focus on studying how the outer edges of host plants distributions are influenced by the anther-smut disease. “These are alpine plants, and as you go down or up the mountain you see changes in the abundance of particular host species.  There’s often expected to be a disease-free halo at the margins of species ranges where densities are low,” he said. “We’re studying how the host plants and the pathogens co-evolve at these margins. Such studies are valuable for our understanding of species distributions as we try to manage natural ecosystems and control the movement of disease from natural ecosystems into domestic populations.”

Hood’s study of anther smut has yielded a series of peer reviewed journal articles about disease and how it’s spread, in journals such as the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, New Phytologist and most recently Ecology and Evolution. He also was awarded a highly competitive CAREER Grant from the National Science Foundation for his ongoing research in this area, as well as a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 2008.

While Hood has been studying anther smut for years, the dark powdery fungus has intrigued scientists and amateur naturalists for much longer than that, including Lydia Becker (1827-1890), a pioneer in the women's suffragette movement in England as well as an enthusiastic botanist who corresponded with Charles Darwin and other leading scientists of the time about her anther smut observations.

Back then, Becker was part of a public competition that encouraged amateur naturalists to collect plants samples around Manchester, England, to seek greater understanding about plant species diversity and distribution.

“There was an outcry among scientists against the competition,” Hood said. “There was a whole series of letters, some signed by groups of scientists, saying ‘the last thing we want is a bunch of amateurs traipsing through the countryside ripping plants out of the ground.’”

By and large, science itself has evolved to the point where that condescending attitude no longer prevails, Hood said.

“I think we all view engagement with the public and non-professional naturalist societies as a positive thing for everybody,” he said. 

photos.png high-resolution photos of this project.

 

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