Background: Asthma incidence has long been linked to pollen, even though pollen grains are too large to penetrate into the airways where asthmatic responses originate. Pollen allergens found in small, respirable particles have been implicated in a number of asthma epidemics, particularly ones following rainfall or thunderstorms.
Objective: The aim of this study was to determine how pollen allergens form the respirable aerosols necessary for triggering asthma.
Methods: Flowering grasses were humidified and then dried in a controlled-environment chamber connected to a cascade impactor and an aerosol particle counter. Particles shed from the flowers were analyzed with high-resolution microscopy and immunolabeled with rabbit anti-Phl p 1 antibody, which is specific for group 1 pollen allergens.
Results: Contrary to what has been reported in other published accounts, most of the pollen in this investigation remained on the open anthers of wind pollinated plants unless disturbed-eg, by wind. Increasing humidity caused anthers to close. After a cycle of wetting and drying followed by wind disturbance, grasses flowering within a chamber produced an aerosol of particles that were collected in a cascade impactor. These particles consisted of fragmented pollen cytoplasm in the size range 0.12 to 4.67 microm; they were loaded with group 1 allergens.
Conclusion: Here we provide the first direct observations of the release of grass pollen allergens as respirable aerosols. They can emanate directly from the flower after a moisture-drying cycle. This could explain asthmatic responses associated with grass pollination, particularly after moist weather conditions.