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The effects of air pollution on the behaviour and allergenic potential of fungi

Primary Supervisor: Dr Catherine Pashley, Department of Respiratory Sciences

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

PhD project title: The effects of air pollution on the behaviour and allergenic potential of fungi

University of Registration: University of Leicester

Project outline:

Fungi are an essential component of the ecosystem, but cause major economic loss through crop damage and infection of domesticated animals and livestock, and affect human health through infections, toxicosis, or allergy. Fungal bioaerosols are ubiquitous, and in the UK fungal spore levels can exceed pollen in outdoor air by 100-1000 fold. Fungal spores also reach very high levels indoors, particularly in damp mouldy properties.

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). There is evidence that air pollution may interact with airborne allergens such as pollens and fungal spores enhancing the risk of sensitisation and making symptoms of asthma and hayfever worse. Most work has focused on pollen aerosols and little is known about the interactions between pollutants and airborne fungal spores, although short-term exposure to gaseous urban air pollution has been shown to increase the allergenicity of the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus (1) and exposure to organic pollutants have been shown to favour the development of pathogenic trade-offs in fungi (2), which may impose serious threats to animals and plant hosts.

Particulate matter (PM) is the principal component of indoor and outdoor air pollution. Recent ground breaking studies from our team, which received worldwide media attention, showed that exposure to PM alters the behaviour of respiratory tract bacteria. This study showed that PM induces changes in bacterial biofilm composition, structure, and function and altered the tolerance of biofilms to antibiotics (3). Many plant, animal and human fungal pathogens grow as biofilms increasing their resistance to fungicides or antifungal drugs.

The aim of this project is to determine whether exposure to PM affects fungal behaviour in ways which could impact on plant and human health


  1. To determine if black carbon, a major component of air pollution particulate matter, can affect the growth rate, germination potential or biofilm formation ability of major plant and human fungal pathogens
  2. To explore whether exposure to PM can increase the allergenic potential of the fungi themselves or the human inflammatory response to the fungi
  3. To investigate changes in the levels of proteins identified in the secretome in response to exposure of fungi to PM

The student will be part of a lively and friendly interdisciplinary research group. The Pashley lab is a nationally-recognised centre for aerobiology and allergen studies whilst the Morrissey lab has recently received worldwide media attention for their ground breaking studies looking at the effects of exposure to PM on the behaviour of respiratory tract bacteria. Training will be provided in a wide range of techniques in the disciplines of microbiology, mycology and molecular biology including culture, ELISA, ex vivo models, imaging, proteomics and Real Time PCR. The student will benefit from the active links and project related meetings with respiratory and infectious disease clinicians, with atmospheric chemists and within the new centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability.


  1. Lang-Yona N, Shuster-Meiseles T, Mazar Y, Yarden O, and Rudich Y. Impact of urban air pollution on the allergenicity of Aspergillus fumigatus conidia: outdoor exposure study supported by laboratory experiments. Science of The Total Environment. 2016; 541:365-71.
  2. Martins C, Varela A, Leclercq CC, Nunez O, Vetrovsky T, Renaut J, Baldrian P, Pereira CS. Specialisation events of fungal metacommunities exposed to a persistant organic pollutant are suggestive of augmented pathogenic potential. Microbiome 2018; 6:208
  3. Hussey SJK, Purves J, Allcock N, Fernandes VE, Monks PS, Ketley JM,Andrew PW and Morrissey JA. Air pollution alters Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae biofilms, antibiotic tolerance and colonisation. Environmental Microbiology 2017; 19:1868-80.

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


Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

  • Microbiological and mycological techniques
  • DNA and protein analysis
  • Bioinformatics
  • Proteomics
  • Culture
  • Ex vivo models
  • Imaging
  • Real Time PCR

Contact: Dr Catherine Pashley, University of Leicester