Environmental DNA reveals links between abundance and composition of airborne grass pollen and respiratory health

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Type Article
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere4
Pages (from-to)1995-2003
Number of pages14
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number9
Early online date11 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2021
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Grass (Poaceae) pollen is the most important outdoor aeroallergen,1 exacerbating a range of respiratory conditions, including allergic asthma and rhinitis (“hay fever”).2, 3, 4, 5 Understanding the relationships between respiratory diseases and airborne grass pollen with a view to improving forecasting has broad public health and socioeconomic relevance. It is estimated that there are over 400 million people with allergic rhinitis6 and over 300 million with asthma, globally,7 often comorbidly.8 In the UK, allergic asthma has an annual cost of around US$ 2.8 billion (2017).9 The relative contributions of the >11,000 (worldwide) grass species (C. Osborne et al., 2011, Botany Conference, abstract) to respiratory health have been unresolved,10 as grass pollen cannot be readily discriminated using standard microscopy.11 Instead, here we used novel environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling and qPCR12, 13, 14, 15 to measure the relative abundances of airborne pollen from common grass species during two grass pollen seasons (2016 and 2017) across the UK. We quantitatively demonstrate discrete spatiotemporal patterns in airborne grass pollen assemblages. Using a series of generalized additive models (GAMs), we explore the relationship between the incidences of airborne pollen and severe asthma exacerbations (sub-weekly) and prescribing rates of drugs for respiratory allergies (monthly). Our results indicate that a subset of grass species may have disproportionate influence on these population-scale respiratory health responses during peak grass pollen concentrations. The work demonstrates the need for sensitive and detailed biomonitoring of harmful aeroallergens in order to investigate and mitigate their impacts on human health.


  • pollen, grass pollen, eDNA, qPCR, respiratory allergy, asthma, aerial allergens, biomonitoring, interdisciplinary