Professor John Harper Research Fund in Plant Ecology Awarded to MSc by Research in Biological Sciences student: Anna Gwyneth Egerton

The “Professor John Harper Research Fund in Plant Ecology” has been awarded to the Molecular Ecology and Fisheries Genetics Laboratory (MEFGL) postgraduate research student, Anna Gwyneth Egerton. The fund will be used to buy equipment needed for the MScRes project: “Aerobiological Sampling for DNA Sequencing: using the MinION to Identify Distinct Species of Allergenic Tree Pollen”. The work involves collecting anemophilous pollen from the air and identifying the different species of tree pollen present, using two methods: traditional light-microscopy techniques and environmental DNA (eDNA) MinION sequencing. 

Professor John Harper (1925-2009) was head of agricultural botany at the then University College of North Wales, Bangor (now Bangor University) until retiring in 1982. 

“Professor John Harper revolutionized plant ecology and had perhaps a greater impact on its development as a modern science than anyone else since Darwin. John brought population biology and experimental approaches into the forefront of plant ecology, linking demography and selection, and there- fore ecology and evolution. He will be remembered with great affection and gratitude by plant ecologists throughout the world.

R. Turkington (2009) Journal of Ecology.

One in five people in the UK are allergic to aerial pollen produced by grasses, weeds or trees, leading to health problems such as allergic rhinitis (also known as pollinosis or hay fever) and allergic asthma.Spatial-temporal information of pollen seasons at the species level may improve the prevention and treatment of such public health issues, therefore reducing the burden to the NHS and UK economy.   

Traditional palynology techniques rely on a high level of skill and training to identify key morphological features, a method which can be labour intensive and time consuming. Even with these factors accounted for, identification of distinct species is not always possible. Issues with inter-specific similarities, positioning and degradation of pollen grains within the sample and human error, all add to the intricacy of pollen identification by microscopy.  Furthermore, it is not possible to differentiate between the morphological features of grass pollen grains at the genus level using light-microscopy. 

Recent advances in DNA sequencing have improved the identification of grass pollen from family level (using traditional microscopy methods) to genus level (Kraaijeveld et al.,2015). The emerging field of eDNA uses genetic material extracted from different environments, including water, soil and air, to identify organisms present in that environment. The MinION is a new portable device, which can be used in the field or laboratory to sequence these eDNA samples. Novel features of the MinION include its small size and portability, single-molecule nanopore technology, minimal library preparation, generation of results in real-time and ultra-long read lengths.    

It is hoped the research will bring to light any advantages of using the MinION alongside traditional pollen counting methods, to improve spatial-temporal information of wind-dispersed allergenic tree pollen. We believe the results of this study will be useful to botanists, palynologists and ecologists, wanting to gain insight into state-of-the-art biodiversity measuring methods, across the taxonomic spectrum, as well as, environmental epidemiologists and molecular biologists, looking into new DNA sequencing techniques.

The project will form part of wider research being conducted by the PollerGEN team at Bangor University, in collaboration with Aberystwyth University, University of Exeter, University of Worcester, University of New South Wales (Sydney), the National Botanic Garden of Wales and the UK Met Office.

Publication date: 27 September 2018