Skip to main content Skip to navigation

The effect of air pollution on the behaviour of bacteria

Primary Supervisor: Dr Julie Morrissey, Department of Genetics and Genome Biology

Secondary Supervisor: Professor Julian Ketley, Professor Peter Andrew, Professor Paul Monks

PhD project title: The effect of air pollution on the behaviour of bacteria.

University of Registration: University of Leicester

Project outline

This project is at the cutting edge of investigations of the increase in infection resulting from airborne pollution.

Air pollution is the world’s largest single environmental health risk, being responsible for an eighth of all global deaths per year (World Health Organisation, 2017). High levels of atmospheric particulate matter (PM) cause increased respiratory and infectious diseases, including pneumonia. How PM effects bacterial behaviour, however, is not well understood which is worrying considering the role of bacteria in infectious and respiratory diseases.

Our ground breaking studies, which received worldwide media attention, showed that exposure to PM alters the behaviour of respiratory tract bacteria (Hussey et al., 2017). Our publication showed that PM induces changes in Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus biofilm composition, structure, and function and importantly altered the tolerance of biofilms to antibiotics (Hussey et al., 2017), and in vivo colonisation of the respiratory tract.

Our recent data have shown that PM alters the biofilms and adherence to human epithelial cells of several other respiratory pathogens and alters bacterial regulatory responses. Additionally we have shown that exposure to different particle pollutants, such as brake dust, also alters bacterial biofilm formation. However we do not know how PM causes these phenotypic responses.

Therefore the aim of this project is to further explore that PM affects bacterial behaviour increasing our understanding of how air pollution causes increased infectious disease.


  1. Identify the mechanisms involved in altered biofilm formation caused by exposure to PM.
  2. Determine how PM alters bacterial cell-cell communication.
  3. Establish the effect of PM on bacteria-host interaction.

The student will be part of a lively and friendly interdisciplinary research group and will be trained in a wide range of molecular microbiology techniques including transcriptional analysis, tissue culture, chemical analyses, electron and fluorescence microscopy. The student will benefit from the active links and project related meetings with respiratory and infectious disease clinicians and with atmospheric chemists.


  1. Hussey et al., 2018. Air pollution alters Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae biofilms, antibiotic tolerance, and colonisation. (2017) Environmental Microbiology 19:1868-1880.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the Rules of Life: Microbiology

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

  • Microbiological techniques
  • RNA and DNA analysis
  • Bioinformatics
  • Metalloproteomics
  • Tissue culture
  • Electron and fluorescence microscopy
  • Chemical analysis

Contact: Dr Julie Morrissey, University of Leicester