CSU team awarded $12.5 million from NSF to study aerobiome

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A team of Colorado State University researchers was awarded $12.5 million from the National Science Foundation to explore fundamental details about microbes that live in the air, or the aerobiome.

The research team will include agricultural biologists, microbiologists, atmospheric scientists and sociologists who will work together to understand how microbial communities impact global health. The project is named BROADN, or Biology Integration Institutes: Regional OneHealth Aerobiome Discovery Network.

“The health of animals, plants, humans and the environment is undoubtedly dependent upon the function of this invisible community,” said Dr. Sue VandeWoude, principal investigator for the project, director of the One Health Institute and a University Distinguished Professor at CSU. “This project supports a unique interdisciplinary research and training program for the next generation of biological scientists and has potentially transformational implications for understanding weather patterns, disease spread, microbial ecology, the environment and health of humans and animals.”

The funding comes from the NSF Biology Integration Institutes program and will provide approximately $2.5 million in funding per year for the five-year award. The program’s mission is to inspire new biotechnologies and applications to drive the bioeconomy and provide solutions to societal challenges.

BROADN project leaders will implement a novel training program for graduate students entering this interdisciplinary field, provide research opportunities for undergraduate students and create outreach programs to bring exciting findings from the project to K-12 students and the public.

How it started

The BROADN project gained momentum in 2019 through a School of Global and Environmental Sustainability Global Challenges Research team award, led by Dr. Angela Bosco-Lauth, assistant professor in biomedical sciences at CSU.

“The aerobiome is as 3D as it gets: You can’t even talk about the air without thinking about the atmosphere, climate change, movement,” said Bosco-Lauth. “Nothing is independent, and we’re affected by all of it. COVID has provided us with the perfect example of how we can’t ignore animals or the environment when it comes to pathogen spread, and the BROADN project is so timely in capturing the essence of One Health for pathogens and non-pathogens alike.”

What is the aerobiome and why is it important to study?

During the past several decades, CSU researchers have studied the microbiome of soils, plants, animals, and humans, but microbial life found in the atmosphere has not been extensively studied.

While researchers know that microorganisms can move through the air, the BROADN team will investigate how the aerobiome is altered by environmental stresses such as weather patterns, seasons, drought, agriculture and fire.

Research will drive solutions to airborne transmission of animal and plant pathogens and will foster understanding of the role of the aerobiome in preserving ecosystem health.

Collaboration leads to better understanding of aerobiome health

NSF’s National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, will be instrumental in leveraging their infrastructure, expertise and ecological data for the project. NEON’s engineers will offer expert data and field site support to BROADN researchers.

Collaborations with networks like NEON will allow CSU scientists a look at an invisible, critical component of the ecosystem.

Research team spans multiple disciplines

More than a dozen researchers from five colleges at CSU and other scientists from CSU Pueblo, Doane University, the University of Colorado Boulder and international organizations will participate in the project and lend expertise on the aerobiome.

“The funding will allow researchers to work at the intersection of disciplines, which is where some of the most interesting, challenging and important science problems lie,” said Sonia Kreidenweis, co-principal investigator of the project and University Distinguished Professor of atmospheric science at CSU.

“The project is a fantastic opportunity to work with our partners to put our ideas into action,” she added.

Additional co-principal investigators on the BROADN research team include University Distinguished Professor Jan Leach and Eugene Kelly, deputy director of the Agricultural Experiment Station and associate dean for extension in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Leach is also associate dean for research in the College of Agricultural Sciences.  

The NSF award number is 2120117.