Temperate airborne grass pollen defined by spatio-temporal shifts in community composition


Grass pollen is the world’s most harmful outdoor aeroallergen. However, it is unknown how airborne pollen assemblages change across time and space. Human sensitivity varies between different species of grass that flower at different times, but it is not known whether temporal turnover in species composition match terrestrial flowering or whether species richness steadily accumulates over the grass pollen season. Here, using targeted, high-throughput sequencing, we demonstrate that all grass genera displayed discrete, temporally restricted peaks of incidence, which varied with latitude and longitude throughout Great Britain, revealing that the taxonomic composition of grass pollen exposure changes substantially across the grass pollen season.

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Fig. 1: Locations where pollen was collected and the temporal concentrations and composition of Poaceae.
Fig. 2: Abundance of the most common taxa of airborne grass pollen throughout the grass pollen season.

Data availability

All sequence data are available at the Sequence Read Archive (SRA) using the project accession number SUB4136142. Archived sequence data were used to generate Fig. 2 and Supplementary Figs. 16, 810). Data on first flowering dates used in Supplementary Fig. 5 were obtained from Nature’s Calendar, Woodland Trust and are available upon request. The sequence analysis pipeline is available at https://github.com/colford/nbgw-plant-illumina-pipeline.


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We thank J. Kenny, P. Koldkjær, R. Gregory and A. Lucaci for sequencing support; J. Winn for ArcGIS assistance with Fig. 1; W. Grail and the technical support staff at Bangor University; the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) for access to the list of plant collections in the National Gardens in the United Kingdom and Ireland; the Met Office network for providing additional observational grass pollen count data; the Woodland Trust and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology for supplying the UK Phenology Network data and the citizen scientists who have contributed to the latter scheme. We acknowledge the computational services and support of the Supercomputing Wales project, which is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) via Welsh Government. This work was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (https://nerc.ukri.org/), awarded to S.C. (NE/N003756/1), C.A.S. (NE/N002431/1), N.J.O. (NE/N002105/1), and G.W.G., N.d.V. and M.H. (NE/N001710/1). IBERS Aberystwyth receives strategic funding from the BBSRC. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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S.C., N.d.V., G.W.G., R.N.M., N.J.O., C.A.S., Y.C., B.W.W. and G.L.B. conceived and designed the study; B.A.-G., G.L.B., G.M.P., A.E., R.N., S.P., K.S. and N.S. collected samples and counted pollen; G.L.B. performed laboratory work, supported by S.C.; N.d.V., C.P., C.R.F., L.J., G.L.B and S.C. contributed methods; C.A. and D.B.R. contributed materials; C.P. and G.L.B. analysed the data; and G.L.B., C.P. and S.C. produced the first draft of the manuscript. All authors contributed substantially to the final submitted manuscript.

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Correspondence to Georgina L. Brennan or Simon Creer.

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Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1–10, Supplementary Tables 1–6 and Supplementary References

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Brennan, G.L., Potter, C., de Vere, N. et al. Temperate airborne grass pollen defined by spatio-temporal shifts in community composition. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 750–754 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0849-7

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