Environmental Microbiology & Human Health

Pollen magnified 500 times

The vision of this programme is to provide the scientific evidence to support fast and efficient identification of pathogenic/allergenic microorganisms and biological material in environmental media which can be used in appropriate tools and models for the protection of public health.

The programme will cover process and modelling studies in freshwater and coastal waters and for bioaerosols, and develop advanced techniques to improve the speed, accuracy and reproducibility of molecular methods and address the problem of counting non-viable organisms through culture methods, as appropriate.

NERC tackles human exposure to microorganisms with Dstl and the FSA

10 Jun 2015

NERC can announce four projects addressing key areas of potential exposure to microorganisms that can affect public health.

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Environmental media such as air and water and their associated ecological niches, for instance sediments and biofilms, provide important pathways for human exposure to pathogenic and allergenic microorganisms:

  • Microorganisms enter the water cycle through multiple sources, including human activity such as sewage disposal, run-off from agricultural animal waste and ship ballast water. Not all of this water will be treated, and if it is, not all of these microorganisms will be removed by chlorination and other treatments, leading to their sporadic presence in potable water, and more regular occurrence in bathing waters and in shellfish consumed by humans.

    In addition to routine monitoring of potable supply and recreational waters, most information for pathogenic microorganisms is currently collected during large outbreaks of infection and not sporadic or local incidents. Sources may be diffuse and intermittent and highly episodic, for example as a result of weather events, ship movement and system breakdowns.

  • Primary biological aerosol particles (PBAPs, or 'bioaerosols') are those airborne particles that are discernibly all or part of an organism, either living, dormant or dead. This includes pollen, fungal spores, bacteria, viruses and plant spores. It also includes material such as plant, animal and insect fragments, leaf litter, dander, phytoplankton, epithelial cells and fungal material.

    Bioaerosols are associated with various sources including dust, water surfaces (both freshwaters and coastal seas), vegetation and animals but also originate from crop harvesting, livestock emissions, fungiculture, grain silos, damp living conditions, composting sites, deliberate or accidental releases, construction, vehicles, building demolition, wastewater processing, biotechnology fermentation, metal working fluids, production and processing of wood and paper, and production of certain food stuffs.

Traditional methods of measurement of microorganisms involve the culturing of organisms. This is slow and highly selective and many organisms cannot be routinely cultured, but it does have the advantage of measuring a sub-set of clearly viable organisms.

Recent rapid advances in molecular biology have the potential to enable enhanced characterisation and rapid quantification of micro-organisms in the environment at a reduced cost compared with traditional methods. The UK science base in this area is very strong but is yet to provide new reliable, accurate and appropriate tools for public health and regulation for policy and, instead, traditional culture methods are used for operational purposes to provide the current regulatory evidence-base. Improved estimation of exposures is the key to characterising risk to public health and real-time, or near real-time, molecular measurements can greatly enhance our modelling capability.

Environmental conditions have an effect on the presence and concentration of microorganisms, and hence human exposure. However, due to inadequate methods of measurement, knowledge of the sources, sinks and pathways, and therefore the exposure of humans to allergenic and pathogenic microorganisms, is limited. Furthermore, environmental change will also have an impact, but little is known of these patterns.

The aim of this programme is to support research into enhanced and novel molecular methods and associated process studies that will enable the identification of pathogenic/allergenic microorganisms and biological material in environmental media and/or address the problem of non-viable organisms. The programme is split into two parts; the first focuses on aquatic (freshwater and coastal) microbiology and the second on bioaerosols.

This programme directly relates to the delivery of the NERC 'environment, pollution & human health' theme from the 2007-2012 'Next Generation Science for Planet Earth' NERC strategy, as well as the 'resilience to environmental hazards' and 'managing environmental change' challenges identified in 'The Business of the Environment', the new NERC strategy published in November 2013.


2015 - 2019

Can I apply for a grant?

No. This call is now closed.


This £5·15 million programme is co-funded by the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Programme awards

Award details are shown in our online grants browser - Grants on the Web.

View details of funded applications - external link