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Molecular mechanisms involved in the impact of air pollution on bacterial cells.

Project Description

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, 2014). High levels of atmospheric particulate matter (PM) cause increased respiratory diseases, and increased respiratory infection including pneumonia. PM impacts the host immune system and causes an oxidative stress in eukaryotic cells but the impact on bacterial cells has not been well studied.

Our ground breaking studies, which received worldwide media attention, showed that exposure to PM has a major impact on respiratory tract pathogens, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus (Hussey et al., 2017). Biofilms are multi-component systems that are key for surface colonisation, and protecting bacteria from stresses such as antibiotics and the immune system. Our publication showed that PM induces changes in biofilm composition, structure, and function and importantly altered the tolerance of biofilms to antibiotics (Hussey et al., 2017).

Additionally, PM alters bacterial colonisation in an in infection model, causing S. pneumoniae and S. aureus to spread to the lower respiratory tract increasing the risk of infection. Our recent data has shown that PM has a differential impact on several respiratory pathogens, and alters bacterial regulatory responses including inducing stress responses which could increase resistance to antimicrobials. However we do not know how PM causes these differential responses. Consequently, our research has major implications for human health because PM will not only affect many different bacteria but also the normal respiratory tract microbiota, increasing the risk of increased antimicrobial resistance and infectious disease.

Therefore the aim of this project is to investigate how PM affects bacterial behaviour, and why different species react differently to PM, increasing our understanding of how air pollution causes increased infectious disease.

This is an interdisciplinary team project and involves microbiology, microbial genetics, clinical respiratory and infectious diseases, molecular biology, tissue culture and links with atmospheric chemistry.

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project

Techniques involved in this project include molecular genetics and microbiology, transcriptomic analysis, bioinformatics, biochemistry, atmospheric chemistry, tissue culture and ex vivo infection models and highly innovative imaging such as cryo-electron microscopy.

Available to UK/EU applicants only
Application information

Funding Notes

4 year funded BBSRC Midlands Innovative Biosciences Training Partnership Studentship (MIBTP)
The funding provides a stipend at RCUK rates and UK/EU tuition fees for 4 years


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

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