A group of biology researchers want “citizen scientists” to participate in a study of which insects and microbes visit specific crops in different geographical areas. Called the “Great Pumpkin Project,” the study, which includes NC State researchers, will help document geographic variation in the insects and microbes associated with some of our most delicious crops – eventually helping farmers improve plant health and crop yields.

Cucurbit crops like pumpkin, squash, cucumber, melon and gourds are an initial focus of the project.

“Most of the calories humanity depends on are from less than 200 domesticated food crop plants,” Lori Shapiro, a postdoctoral researcher at NC State University and one of the project leaders told Matt Shipman at NC State. “Our goal with this study is to learn how the plants that produce our most important food crops interact with insects and microbes in different areas around the world.”

Shapiro wonders, Shipman writes, how do the relationships between plants, insects and microbes vary from place to place? And what does that mean for plant health, crop productivity and resistance to pests?

“When you put a plant in a new environment, the plant may be exposed to insect pests or microbial pathogens – like viruses, bacteria or fungi – that it hasn’t encountered before,” Shapiro says. “At the same time, the plant leaves behind its beneficial pollinators and microbes.

Untangling complex ecological webs

“That means the plant may not have evolved defenses against these novel challenges,” Shapiro adds. “And this can be exacerbated by the fact that humans have disrupted natural plant/insect/microbe relationships that have evolved over time by domesticating crops and breeding plants for desirable traits, such as taste and ease of harvest, and breeding out traits that plants may use in defense against insects and pests.”

or example, many cultivated plants were selected by humans to reduce their natural toxins, because those toxins made the plant’s fruit bitter. But those toxins also helped protect the plant from pests. Thus, human interference made the plant both more attractive for human consumption and less able to defend itself.

To untangle these complex ecological webs, Shapiro and her colleagues in NC State’s Dunn Lab are hoping to enlist the help of thousands of people from all over the globe.

“We are recruiting participants to plant small gardens with both a native pumpkin species and a non-native cucumber species,” Shapiro says. “We provide the seeds and guidance on both how to plant the seeds and how to collect data for the study. Then, we want these students and citizen scientists to photograph the insects that visit those plants and upload the photos to a public, online photo-sharing platform that we’re using to collect data. We’ll also be collecting some physical samples from a subset of study participants.”

Teachers, 4-H clubs and anyone else interested in becoming a citizen scientist can enroll in the project through StudentsDiscover.org. The Great Pumpkin Project

This piece was adapted from Matt Shipman’s article in the NC State abstract.