By Nathan Smith
As we entrench ourselves firmly into the computational age, science is increasingly looking towards the general public for help with research. With the world just a click away, games and surveys have become common tools for engaging with the non-scientific community. Indeed, citizen science (as it is more formally known), has become a popular throughout all areas of science, including botany, and looks set to stay as a rewarding area for research in many disciplines. With this in mind, I interviewed Oliver Ellingham, a PhD student from the University of Reading, who has incorporated citizen science into his research of powdery mildew fungi.
What is the research you’re doing?
My PhD project at the University of Reading aims to develop molecular markers to aid in accurate and efficient identification of the approximate 800 powdery mildew species. When applying for funding, most research projects tend to include ‘avenues to impact’. However these are rarely followed through on. To achieve this small element in my project I have started the ‘Powdery Mildew Survey’: a citizen science scheme aiming to increase public knowledge and awareness in my research topic, but also biology, pathology, and horticulture in general.
What is powdery mildew and why is research into it important?
Powdery mildew is a fungal plant disease. It is termed ‘biotrophic’, meaning that is relies upon its plant host to live, survive, reproduce, and thrive. It will therefore not kill the plant, but greatly reduce its vigour, beauty, and fruit production.There are currently many research projects into varying aspects of this fungus, concerning disease spread and management (using both biological and chemical controls), as well as, like mine, ways to differentiate between the many species using varying parts of its DNA.This is important as being able to tell the difference between different species enables us to track them and know which are new to our island and which have always been here. In this way we can help to limit spread of pathogens between geographically separate areas.
What is the economic impact of powdery mildew?
Powdery mildew costs global agricultural industries millions of pounds per year in control and/or reduction in crop yields. As examples, up to 100% of a grape crop and 20% of a pepper or tomato crop can be lost if left untreated with fungicides.
Less precise figures are available in the horticultural industry, however there have been interesting developments in grand-scale flower production. Roses produced en masse in the Netherlands are treated with fungicides to prevent distortion of the flower via powdery mildew infection. However in recent years, large-scale growers have turned to a new, significantly more expensive, biological control: the plants are treated with another fungus, called Pseudozyma flocculosa. This is antagonistic to the powdery mildew, and strangles it, but not the plant.
What does the citizen science scheme entail?
I offer an identification service. Members of the public can send me their powdery mildew infected plant material, and by identifying the host plant, analysing the fungus’ microscopic, morphological features, and finally extracting and amplifying its DNA I can identify the single species of powdery mildew present. As a by-product of this the sampling number for my project is greatly improved, as well as the distribution and diversity.
What struggles have you had getting the public engaged in the scheme?
The hardest thing in this first year of the project has been spreading awareness. I believe this to be significantly easier in the present-day, due to the internet and social media. However contacting like-minded, enthusiastic people, willing to spread the word is difficult when just sitting at my computer. Networking at flower shows and various conferences has helped this hugely, and I am very grateful to the people who have showed an interest and shared contacts with me.
What do the initial results from you research show?
Firstly, that powdery mildew is extremely common in the UK and that identification of its presence is possible by anyone. Also, that species identification is possible using microscopic, morphological analysis combined with molecular data. It has also shown that certain species are more common than others: those of the Erysipheae tribe, which have been shown to possess certain proteins to increase their ability to adapt and infect new hosts, are most abundant; while Phyllactineae are less common, potentially due to the adaptation of many of their features to warmer, Mediterranean climates.
For more information on Oliver Ellingham’s research and to get involved in the citizen science scheme, please visit his blog at http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/crg/author/oliellingham/ or follow him on Twitter at @PowderyM