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Go on: become a citizen scientist wherever you live

| April 10, 2018 | 0 Comments

Many South Africans are horrified by Cape Town’s water crisis. There are, however, also other problems in the city and its surrounds.

Researchers at the University of Pretoria in Gauteng and Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape have determined that plant-killing microbes, known as Phytophthora, can be detected in urban areas before they get the chance to escape and spread into the natural environment.

Say Joey Hulbert and Francois Roets, Phytophthora is a Greek word meaning “plant destroyer”. The Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s was caused by Phytophthora infestans, a species that still plagues tomato and potato fields around the world.

Hulbert and Roets call another species, Phytophthora cinnamomi, the “biological bulldozer”. It is considered a top environmental threat, occurring widely in the Cape Town area. Hulbert and Roets have made the crucial finding thanks to citizen scientists. Anyone can sign up to be a pathogen hunter.

 They say:

We’re asking citizens to help look for plant destroyers in the city’s urban areas. This study is important because our best chance of preventing a plant disease epidemic is to detect the species before it spreads into natural or agricultural environments.

Humans – the very “carriers” who can spread dangerous microbes unthinkingly from their equipment and shoes – can instead become the first line of defence against a possible microscopic invasion.

Cape Citizen Science is an established project supported by the University of Pretoria’s Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology and Stellenbosch University’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute.

 Roets and Hulbert have sought out citizens to collect soil and fine roots from under sick plants in Cape Town’s urban areas. The detailed analysis that follows can be used to inform decisions to protect the natural areas surrounding the Mother City.

“For example, finding a different species in the urban areas may be enough to justify boot cleaning stations at the base of the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway – a way to keep those tiny murderers from “hitch-hiking” into natural and agricultural areas on our boots,” say Hulbert and Roets.


Category: Autumn 2018

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