Effect of climate change on pollen allergies
Climate change is changing pollen. But how can pollen predictions be improved? Dr Maria Plaza and her junior research group IMPACCT are investigating climate-related changes in pollen and spore parts and their distribution.
Environment and climate change
Maria Plaza, a native of Spain, grew up in the Mediterranean region. Drought has been a pressing problem there for many years, and in times of climate change this is exacerbated by temperature spikes and extreme heat waves. "Studying climate change and predicting its consequences for nature and ultimately people piqued my interest early on and inspired my career." She first studied forest engineering and earned her master's degree in environment and forestry. She also completed a master's degree in bioinformatics and biostatistics and received her doctorate in biology. In her doctoral studies, Maria Plaza focused specifically on aerobiology - a field that deals with organisms and biological particles such as pollen and spores that occur in the air of indoor environments, as well as outdoors. "I focused on the interdisciplinary field of aerobiology and environmental exposure because it is a multidisciplinary science. It provides us with information not only about biodiversity, but also about the changes that are occurring in our environment and how nature responds to those changes. This will make it possible, for example, to predict the allergic response of the population to changing pollen and pollen counts."
IMPACCT junior research group
Maria Plaza herself has not yet been affected by pollen allergies, but that does not mean she will remain so for the rest of her life, she said. "Normally, as we age, the immune system becomes less sensitive and allergy symptoms tend to decrease. But due to climate change, we are experiencing longer and more intense pollen seasons, and so people affected by pollen allergies will not only continue to suffer from symptoms in the future, but these symptoms may even get worse. Even older adults may thus be affected by allergies for the first time in their lives." This is one of the reasons why the junior research group "IMPACCT - Improved decision-support for Managing the risk from Environmental disease to Public Health in a Climate Change perspective" aims to improve pollen forecasting systems and the way they are communicated to the interested and affected public. In doing so, IMPACCT brings together numerous scientific disciplines: health, data science, bioinformatics, and climate change science. This is because one of the goals of IMPACCT is to gain a better understanding of the complex relationships between humans and nature and to develop a digital decision support tool for allergy management. At the Chair and Institute of Environmental Medicine at the University of Augsburg and the Helmholtz Centre Munich, the junior research group is embedded in a transdisciplinary team. The junior researchers will contribute in particular to increasing planning and management capacities as well as to improving early warning systems and thereby contributing to climate change adaptation. "Our goal is that we can all have relevant and high-quality information," is Plaza's wish for successful research.
People affected by pollen allergies, as well as medical professionals, will primarily benefit from the research results, as they will be able to prepare for upcoming pollen seasons at an early stage and take appropriate preventive measures such as hyposensitisation. The prediction of pollen in the atmosphere also provides the researchers of the junior research group with information on how vegetation is changing due to climate change and which plant species are advancing to new latitudes as a result. In this way, non-allergy sufferers will in the future also be able to learn about new environmental factors that influence our health.
Maria Plaza and her junior research group will collect and analyze data from several European cities. "Collaboration on studies that gather information on airborne particles in climate change is crucial, as the particles are transported thousands of kilometers from one area to another. Fortunately, we have a network of aerobiologists in Europe who are actively collaborating on various international projects - and I am part of that network."
IMPACCT and career
"IMPACCT gives me the opportunity to conduct a study for the first time as a junior group leader, using a novel approach to gain in-depth knowledge about climate change and its impact on human health." To do this, Plaza says it is essential to integrate different disciplines into an innovative and interdisciplinary group. She continues, "Climate and other environmental changes that impact our health require societal attention. The good thing is, there are more and more technological advances that can be applied to this field, such as the various capabilities of bioinformatics." She looks forward to the challenge of this responsible junior research group leadership position, which will allow her to work closely with her colleagues in conducting exposure studies on the health effects of environmental factors, and to develop and propose solutions and disseminate information to citizens.
Special feature of the BMBF Young Investigators Program
Giving young researchers opportunities is something Maria Plaza finds very important: "After all, new and creative ideas are needed to understand the global changes we are facing and to create a solid basis for future-oriented decisions. With the BMBF program, we have the opportunity to develop our own research ideas and conduct independent research with our own research group to learn more about global change and its impact on our health."