Projected carbon dioxide to increase grass pollen and allergen exposure despite higher ozone levels

PLoS One. 2014 Nov 5;9(11):e111712. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111712. eCollection 2014.


One expected effect of climate change on human health is increasing allergic and asthmatic symptoms through changes in pollen biology. Allergic diseases have a large impact on human health globally, with 10-30% of the population affected by allergic rhinitis and more than 300 million affected by asthma. Pollen from grass species, which are highly allergenic and occur worldwide, elicits allergic responses in 20% of the general population and 40% of atopic individuals. Here we examine the effects of elevated levels of two greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), a growth and reproductive stimulator of plants, and ozone (O3), a repressor, on pollen and allergen production in Timothy grass (Phleum pratense L.). We conducted a fully factorial experiment in which plants were grown at ambient and/or elevated levels of O3 and CO2, to simulate present and projected levels of both gases and their potential interactive effects. We captured and counted pollen from flowers in each treatment and assayed for concentrations of the allergen protein, Phl p 5. We found that elevated levels of CO2 increased the amount of grass pollen produced by ∼50% per flower, regardless of O3 levels. Elevated O3 significantly reduced the Phl p 5 content of the pollen but the net effect of rising pollen numbers with elevated CO2 indicate increased allergen exposure under elevated levels of both greenhouse gases. Using quantitative estimates of increased pollen production and number of flowering plants per treatment, we estimated that airborne grass pollen concentrations will increase in the future up to ∼200%. Due to the widespread existence of grasses and the particular importance of P. pratense in eliciting allergic responses, our findings provide evidence for significant impacts on human health worldwide as a result of future climate change.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants
  • Allergens / immunology*
  • Carbon Dioxide*
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity / immunology
  • Ozone*
  • Phleum
  • Poaceae*
  • Pollen / immunology*


  • Air Pollutants
  • Allergens
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Ozone

Grant support

The authors have no support or funding to report.