From Sowerby’s 1803
illustration of Stellaria infected with Microbotryum
in Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms (1795-1815).
The fungus Microbotryum violaceum causes anther-smut disease of plants in the Caryophyllaceae (the Pink Family). This fungus has been of scientific importance since at least the mid 1700’s.
Carl Linnaeus, in his Hortus Cliffortianus (1738), mistook a specimen of the plant Silene latifolia with anther-smut disease as representing a new species, with flowers fully covered in black powder. In 1760, the rather advanced work of Jean Baptiste Aymen ("Recherches sur les progres et la cause de la nielle" Memoires de mathem. et de phys. 3:68-85) displayed a surprising knowledge of anther-smut. Perhaps through Aymen’s correspondence with Linneaus, the infected Silene latifolia specimen was reassigned by the time of Systema Naturae 12th edn. in 1767.
In some important areas, there remained confusion as to the nature of Microbotryum.
In 1821, the foundational work of Elias Fries (Systema
Mycologicum, vol. 1, pp xxv-xxvi) debated the
source of dark powdery anthers, saying they simply contained inviable pollen and that any associated fungus was of
heterogenic origin. However, Anton de Bary,
in 1853 (Unterauchungen uber
die Brandpilze und die durch
sie verursachten Krankheiten der Pflanzen.
By the late 1800’s, the curious effects of anther-smut disease upon
gender expression in plants was well know. Microbotryum replaces the
pollen in anthers with fungal spores, and even female plants take on a
male-like appearance with large anthers and aborted ovaries. This unusual development was noted by the
important suffragist (and scientist) Lydia E. Becker, who corresponded several
time with Charles Darwin before presenting a paper in 1869, "On alteration
in the structure of Lychnis diurna,
observed in connexion with the development of a
parasitic fungus" (Report of the 39th meeting of the British Association
for the Advancement of Science, p. 106).
With the rediscovery of Mendel’s Laws in the early 1900’s, mycology became more directed toward genetic studies, and again, Microbotryum was use to make significant contributions. As part of Hans Kniep’s earliest work on sexual compatibility (1919, Untersuchungen uber den Antherenbrand (Ustilago violacea Pers.). Ein Beitrag zum sexualitatproblem. Z. Bot. 11:257-284), Microbotryum was used to demonstrate bipolar mating types. Most recently, the first dimorphic sex chromosomes to be discovered in fungi were found in Microbotryum, and this system is continuing to provide intresting insights into the evolution of sexual systems. In several other areas, anther-smut disease is being actively studies as an empirical model: molecular mechanisms (e.g. the long-running "Genetics of Ustilago violacea" series); taxnomy (e.g. the latest in a long history of revisions has moved Microbotryum between Orders of fungi!); ecological and evolutionary disease dynamics (e.g. Microbotryum presents a tractable and low-risk system for a great many experiments addressing disease in natural populations).