Spotlight on: Aerobiology


The Biologist Vol 60(3) p32-33

Aerobiology is the study of airborne biological particles and their movement and impact on human, animal and plant health.

Why is it important?

Allergens in airborne pollen or fungal spores are the cause of hay fever or allergic rhinitis in more than 20% of the UK population. Many fungal spores carried in the air are pathogens of UK crops or cause allergies in animals, so tracking these particles is also important to the agriculture industry.

What careers are available?

Aerobiology is a multidisciplinary field. Careers mostly involve sampling air quality and public health, immunology research, environmental protection or agriculture. Research and forecasting organisations around the world advise the general population and the medical and farming industries, and many commercial companies are developing allergen detectors or products to counter the symptoms of allergies.

Aerobiologists often work closely with medical doctors, plant pathologists, mycologists and meteorologists. Aerobiological observations are used in many other disciplines: palynology (the study of dust), ecology, botany, phenology, climatology, meteorology and forensics.

How do I get into a career involving aerobiology?

Many working in aerobiology will have specialised in microbiology. There are masters degrees available that focus on allergies and infections from universities such as Worcester and King's College London.

Many biology undergraduate courses run modules specifically on allergens. Basic and advanced aerobiology courses are also organised by the International Association on Aerobiology (IAA) – the next one is being held in Ukraine in July.

Where can I get more information?

For more information and links, check out the IAA's website and the UK's National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit.

Areobiology Roy KennedyAt a glance

Name: Professor Roy Kennedy

Profession: Director, National Pollen & Aerobiology Research Unit, University of Worcester
Qualifications: PhD in plant pathology, University of Sydney, Australia; MSc in mycology, Queen's University Belfast; BSc (Hons) in botany, Queen's University Belfast
Interests: Pollen and fungal spore- related allergies, infectious agents, fungal genomics and population studies

What does your research involve?

We are best known for our pollen forecast, which we do in March, from the beginning of the season, through to October. We've been doing it for nearly 20 years. Pollen concentration is dependent on vegetation coverage and phenology – when grasses and flowers are opening and releasing their pollen – but also the weather, so it's a collaboration with the Met Office.

We also work closely with Worcester acute hospital and tweet our pollen forecasts to their respiratory doctors, many of whom are honorary members of the unit. If you know in advance you can start to take your medicine earlier and lessen the effects of the allergens.

What other applications are there for your aerobiology research?

Many fungal spores carried in the air are plant pathogens. So farmers can minimise their pesticide use if they are able to track when particular pathogens will pass over their crops and when they won't.

We also recently found the amount of allergen within the pollen varies and research suggests it could be to do with climate change. We are working with physicians at Worcester Acute Hospital on using immunotherapy treatments for controlling allergies and there is even research looking at products to harden the lining of the nose so it is less sensitive. Don't forget, there's also the indoor aerobiology environment – house dust mites and pets, and the materials they give off, that many people are sensitive to.

Did you help to track the spread of ash dieback?

We were involved with reviewing the information on ash dieback and the techniques that could have been used to alleviate it.

Many believe it only takes one or two spores to create an epidemic but this is generally not the case. We are not just talking about detecting spores but the likelihood of there being enough to establish an infection. Similarly, there are threshold levels of specific allergens required for sensitisation in humans.

How do you sample air for biological particles?

About 20 stations across the UK send us data. They are mostly other universities and hospitals, where the amount of pollen is measured on a daily basis. That is then sent to us and fed into our daily forecast.

The two major allergens that cause hay fever come from birch tree pollen early in the season and grass pollen. I think people would be surprised by what you find over a 24-hour period. Air samplers vary. The ones from the 1950s, when aerobiology really had just started, were the industry standard for a long time and particulates were basically impacted on a bit of sticky tape and then looked at under a microscope.

Now we have high-volume samplers that can sample 500 litres of air per minute and separate particulates into different sizes; or pregnancy test-style kits that give you a colour reading in the presence of particular allergens – a lab on a stick. You can even get an app that calculates the concentration of certain airborne particles using an iPhone. You don't need a lab any more.

Where is aerobiology research heading?

For a long time aerobiology has concentrated on microscopic tests and we need to focus more on genetics and applying the science of genomics to airborne biological material. As well as whole cells, we want to look at which individual genes are present and causing allergy, and what's going on within populations of fungal pathogens and allergen producing pollens.