Barcelona Cultura

“Air is like water: it mixes everything in it”. Interview with the aerobiologist Jordina Belmonte

Jordina Belmonte is an aerobiologist, a branch of biology that studies organic particles in the air. She is a Professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), a researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB) as well as President of the Catalan Natural History Institution (ICHN). Distinguished as a Member of Honour of the Association of Environmentalists of Catalonia, she has given a talk on the biodiversity of the Mediterranean  basin and its importance. We talk to her about this very biodiverse space, AI applied to biology and the air in our city.

The Network of Libraries of Barcelona has invited you to a conference on the biodiversity of the Mediterranean basin. Who are its inhabitants? Which species share this habitat?

The Mediterranean territories (land and water) are very biodiverse. In fact, they are the most biodiverse in Europe (compared with Central and Northern Europe) and North Africa. The current and historic climate has made possible the existence of environments with very varied environmental conditions populated by many animal, vegetable and fungal organisms.  

Some of the ICTA-UAB departments study the interactions between human societies and the mechanisms that act on global change. Is there an influence on the habitats of Mediterranean species?

I am not an expert on this matter, but it is well known that human societies (with very few exceptions and which are not found in the Mediterranean environment) act in a very conclusive way on their environment. With our way of living, living in a territory, moving about, manufacturing, transporting, doing leisure activities, etc., we make or contribute to the alteration of natural environmental processes and contribute to global change. All habitats (terrestrial and aquatic) are affected by human activity.  

Some species end up adapting to the environment. Which would you highlight?

This is a very difficult question to answer if we are talking about the Mediterranean, due to the size of the territory and the great diversity of organisms that live there! For sure, bacteria manage to make quick modifications and adapt to new environments... this leads one to think that perhaps a good approach is to say that, in general, the smaller organisms are and that have higher reproduction rates, the faster they can fix characteristics in the genome that enable them to adapt to a changing environment. But there are also very big and very old species in which the metabolism makes changes very, very slowly but that also put up with a changing environment. I could highlight a plant: the Pyrenean-violet (Ramonda myconi), which is said to be a relictual endemite of Catalonia, because it has been present here since the Tertiary Period. The living and habitat conditions (small cracks in limestone rocks) have enabled it to remain to date between the Pyrenees and Ports de Tortosa. And may it be so for many more eras!

700 tonnes of plastic waste contaminate the Mediterranean every day, therefore, it is under threat. As a scientist, what processes or characteristics should materials have when we produce new products to minimise these threats?

We have to make sure that everything we produce subsequently decomposes and returns to nature. Another option is to reuse or recycle it into a new product. That is what happens in nature, where, if we think about organisms, everything is cyclical. You die and decompose, whether by a natural process or because you have been consumed by a bigger organism than yourself...

You specialises in aerobiology, the science that studies the biological components of the air. What do we, the inhabitants of Barcelona and its metropolitan area, breathe? 

When we talk about aerobiology, above all we refer to microscopic particles, therefore we cannot see them with the naked eye unless for some reason they accumulate large quantities. We could also talk about butterflies, bees, birds, etc., but for now the concept is mainly used for things we identify by looking through a microscope. The air in Barcelona has many pollen grains and fungal spores (I have been studying them for 40 years!), together with micro arthropods (mainly mites) and bacteria. The species vary throughout the year because they have different needs, such as, for example, the ambient temperature, rainfall, etc. Due to the fact that we live in a place, what we breathe the most is what is closest to us, but it has also been shown that air currents transport all these miniscule particles very efficiently, so that sometimes in Barcelona we are also breathing pollens and spores that come from France, Germany, East Europe... or from the Sahara (episodes of Saharan dust). Anyway, air is like water: it mixes everything in it. It is an amazing world, I could talk about it for hours!

How has the incorporation of new technologies and AI affected research into air quality? What do the studies tell us? 

If we are talking about the biological quality of air (pollens, spores and others) the new technologies and AI are starting to be applied lately and there is still a lot of work to do, but it is very interesting because they will make possible something that has already been achieved in other fields. I mean to say that, not long ago (or is 40 years long ago?), when I began to do research, meteorological data was taken manually... now there are many automatic recording stations that allow us to see what the temperature is with just seconds of difference. So, for now, when we study pollens and spores in the air, we observe them under the microscope one by one and we search in our minds or consult books to find which organism they belong to, then we write it down and that is how we all count. Palynological craftsmanship! But we are already beginning to work on training machines developed by some engineers to know how to recognise biological particles in the air... it will all happen soon!  Give us some time to continue collaborating and soon we can report in real time what biological particles are in the air.

Ajuntament de Barcelona