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Science Solstice - citizen science meets microbiology!

What is this project about?

Thank you for your interest in my upcoming citizen science project! This is part of my PhD project titled “Environmental drivers of azole-resistance in Aspergillus fumigatus and its relevance to human health” split between Professor Mat Fisher’s group at Imperial College London and Dr Andrew Singer’s group at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. For my project I am conducting a UK-wide survey to determine background levels of mould spores (Aspergillus fumigatus) by collecting air and soil samples from as many places as possible, and then testing them for resistance to azole fungicide drugs.

This is where you come in! By agreeing to participate in my Science Solstice passive air sampling experiment you will be providing me with valuable data points for my project. All you need to do is leave the air samplers sticky side up on an outside windowsill on the ground floor of two different locations (e.g. your house and workplace) for the whole day of Thursday 21st June and then freepost them back to me in the envelope provided. As your air samplers sit on the windowsills the fungal spores passing through the air around them will settle and stick to them, making this a passive sampling method (as opposed to actively pumping large volumes of air through a filter to capture fungal spores).

How do I get involved?

If you would like to take part please enter your details in the Google form: Your details will be kept completely confidential. If you choose to provide an email address, I will send you updates on the project and a link to your anonymized data points on an online interactive map. (If you are happy to take part but would not like further updates please leave the email space blank and I will not trouble you further!) In the fortnight prior to Summer Solstice you will receive an envelope containing the air samplers, simple instructions, a questionnaire and a freepost envelope- all you need to complete the experiment- and you will receive a text message reminder the day before so you don’t forget. Thank you in advance for your participation!

Talk science to me!

Aspergillus fumigatus plays an important role in the environment as a decomposer- it is commonly found in soil and decaying vegetation where it breaks down organic matter into carbon and nitrogen- and it produces tiny spores that readily become airborne. These spores spread easily on wind currents meaning that A.fumigatus is EVERYWHERE. It is found in most countries, outdoors and indoors, in air and in soil, and it is estimated that we each inhale 100s of spore every day. When we are healthy these spores are cleared by our innate immune system and cause us no problems, whereas in individuals with a compromised immune response- such as those with HIV/AIDS or cystic fibrosis or undergoing organ transplant or chemotherapy- these spores can establish and grow in the lungs to cause invasive aspergillosis (IA). The first line of treatment of IA is with drugs containing active compounds called azoles and the fatality rate varies between 40-90%, dependent on the patient’s history. Unfortunately, if the patient is infected with A.fumigatus that has developed resistance to these medical azoles the infection becomes much harder to treat and the fatality rate is higher. Azoles used in medical drugs are structurally similar to azoles incorporated into fungicide sprays for agricultural use and it is likely that A.fumigatus in the soil that is accidentally exposed to fungicides (it is not the intended target as it is not a crop pathogen) can develop resistance to azoles- both medical and agricultural. By collecting air and soil samples from across the UK I will determine the percentage of spores that have developed azole resistance, and whether this is influenced by factors such as seasonality, land use, soil type and urban versus rural. These data could then inform an environmental “risk map” for individuals at highest risk of acquiring IA.

A.fumigatus colonies grown from sticky tape used in my pilot study at Imperial’s St Mary’s campus.

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