UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- David Hughes understands, maybe better than most, the devastating effects a plant disease can have on crops and the people who rely on them for food and income.
This understanding, combined with the mentoring he received early in his research career in evolutionary biology, germinated the seed of an idea in his mind. And that inspiration now has borne fruit in the form of an online network designed to get practical knowledge about plants and plant diseases into the hands -- and mobile devices -- of farmers and growers around the globe.
Called PlantVillage, the open-access site recently surpassed a half million users worldwide just 20 months after its launch, with users in North America, sub-Saharan Africa, India and elsewhere. "About 35 percent of our daily users come from developing countries," said Hughes, an assistant professor of entomology and biology at Penn State.
The concept is built, according to its website, "on the premise that all knowledge that helps people grow food should be openly accessible to anyone on the planet." Hughes and his co-developer -- Marcel Salathe, assistant professor of biology -- are bringing that proposition to life.
"We want to democratize access to the world's knowledge on plants," Hughes said. "Historically, much of that information has been contained behind paywalls by commercial companies. We are translating and rewriting a lot of that knowledge in simple, understandable terms so it's practical, relevant and free for those who need it."
The effort has resulted in a library of science-based information on 153 crops and 2,000 plant diseases that can be accessed easily on mobile devices. With thousands of digital pages of information and more than 2,000 images, the library covers virtually every important food crop in the world.
In addition to this repository, users can seek information and solutions from their fellow PlantVillagers. A crowdsourcing and ranking system enables the network of participating farmers, gardeners, scientists, extension specialists and others to share perplexing questions and offer answers, with the best and most-valued answers voted up by other users.
"We don't care whether they're backyard gardeners, farmers or researchers -- we don't discriminate," Hughes noted. "They can be from Manhattan, Mogadishu or Montana. Sometimes growers have solutions for problems that scientists haven't figured out yet."
The rise of mobile technology in recent years meant the time was ripe for such a project, explained Hughes, citing estimates that by 2019, 85 percent of the world's population will have a smart phone.
"Many farmers have smart phones in their pockets that have more computing power than the Apollo space missions," he said. "We got to thinking that we could use these phones, which virtually all have cameras, to help diagnose plant diseases and share information that could increase production."
A native of Dublin, Ireland, Hughes grew up in a society that today is still influenced by one of the worst crop-disease disasters in history: the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, which caused the starvation deaths of an estimated 1 million people and led another million to flee the country.
"As an Irishman, I think about the famine of 1845, and if people die of starvation in Africa in 2014 because they couldn't get basic knowledge on growing food, that's a terrible tragedy that we all have to carry," he said.
As a graduate student at the University of Oxford, Hughes began a working relationship with one of the world's foremost plant pathologists, Harry Evans, of the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International, and the pair soon embarked on international expeditions to study fungus-infected "zombie" ants. As they emerged from rainforests and entered farms, Evans' encyclopedic knowledge of plant diseases made an impression on Hughes.
"There aren't many like Harry Evans left anymore, and we're not training replacements with that kind of deep domain knowledge," Hughes said. "And as public funding for science and extension has eroded, I started to think about how we could take advantage of the collective knowledge of the community and make it readily accessible."
After arriving at Penn State, Hughes approached collaborator Salathe, an expert in epidemiology and social networks, with his idea. The two partnered to develop the site, with help from Lindsay McMenemy, research associate in plant biology, and Brian Lambert, a computer programmer/analyst.
&"Marcel and I are very symbiotic at this stage," said Hughes. "We are very different biologists who complement each other very well. That sort of thing flourishes at Penn State."
The team secured funding from the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences to get PlantVillage up and running. The project since has garnered additional support from other Penn State units, including the Office of the Provost, Office of the Vice President for Research; the colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Information Sciences and Technology, and Engineering; and Outreach and Online Education.
In the future, Hughes hopes to see additional features, such as more information translated to different languages, video chats and other enhancements. In the meantime, he contends, PlantVillage is filling a need not being served by traditional outreach channels.
"The idea behind PlantVillage dovetails with the mission of modern agricultural extension," Hughes said. "Extension began in my hometown in Ireland in 1847 with Lord Clarendon's itinerant instructors during the great famine. It expanded into Germany in the 1850s through the itinerant agricultural teachers known as Wanderlehrer. That paved the way for the U.S. Cooperative Extension System authorized by the Smith-Lever Act in 1914.
"Ways of providing knowledge always have evolved. We are continuing this evolution and expanding extension in the digital age. By leveraging the power of the global plant community, we can help people grow food and lift themselves out of hunger and poverty in regions that formal extension programs haven't been able to reach."