People's Choice Awards
Paul explores climate change, asthma and allergies
Global Allergic Reaction
Is the planet literally allergic to climate change?
Australian scientist Dr Paul Beggs has found that increased levels of carbon dioxide and higher temperatures are having a direct impact on the incidence of allergens, such as pollen and peanuts, and the allergic disease known as asthma.
For his research into the impact of climate change on allergens, Dr Beggs, from the Department of Environment and Geography in the Faculty of Science at Macquarie University, has won this year's OSMR Jamie Callachor Eureka Prize for Medical Research.
The prize is part of the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, the most prestigious awards in Australian science. The winners were announced last night at a star-studded evening of the country's most inspired minds.
Turning twenty this year, ‘The Eurekas,' as they are fondly known, have become the most coveted science awards in this country. Every scientist knows a ‘eureka' moment comes after decades of singular dedication, deep inquiry and rich collaboration. Receiving an Australian Museum Eureka Prize is regarded as a pinnacle achievement for any Australian scientist.
Dr Beggs published the first academic papers on the possible impacts of increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns on asthma; air-based allergens (such as pollen) and plant food allergens such as peanuts.
"His research has sparked worldwide interest in the relationship between climate change and allergens," says Frank Howarth, Director of the Australian Museum.
"Previously, climate change was not considered as a possible cause of the global increase in asthma, and there was limited appreciation of how it could affect allergenic diseases."
In 2008, Dr Beggs wrote that climate change, in particular higher temperatures and CO2 emissions, could increase the impact of plant food allergens.
He offered several theoretical explanations for this: some of the allergenic proteins generated by plants are responses to climatic stress. Carbon dioxide and temperature directly affect plant metabolism through photosynthesis; and higher CO2 concentrations cause many plants to have a higher weight of shoots or peanut pods.
Dr Beggs is now conducting glasshouse research into the relationship between increased CO2 and peanut allergen levels.
His authority in this area of research has won international recognition. Dr Beggs was invited to contribute to the ‘Aeroallergens and disease' section of the ‘Human health' chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest Assessment Report.
Dr Beggs' research could also lead to wider fields of investigation: climate-based seasonal forecasting of allergen activity; the impact of land management on allergy outbreaks, and the implications of climate change for the pharmaceutical industry.
The $10,000 OSMR Jamie Callachor Eureka Prize for Medical Research is designed to encourage and reward emerging medical researchers. It is awarded for an outstanding, ground-breaking medical research project.
All of us know at least someone who suffers from asthma or an allergy to nuts. In fact, around 10 per cent of Australians, more kids than adults, get asthma and Australians have high allergy levels compared to other countries of the developed world.
Environmental health scientist Dr Paul Beggs has discovered that climate change could make asthma and food allergies more severe and more common and is helping health experts to address this challenge.
Paul started out looking at other allergens such as pollen, house dust mites and mould spores. His interest was sparked by some research into the plant poison ivy and how it may become more toxic to humans with climate change.
"I started to look at skin contact and respiratory diseases - I thought no one had looked at food allergies before. Nothing was done on it, but it was an obvious choice because food allergies can have a very severe impact on people," Paul said.
"My work combines an interest in human health with my interest in climate change - two subjects I am passionate about and I know we can generally do better as individuals and a society about."
Paul's research was the first in the world to link increased worldwide asthma with climate change. He showed that increased levels of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere, along with increases in temperature, were increasing pollen quantity and the length of the pollen season, potentially leading to more common and severe cases of asthma. In 2008, he was the first to suggest that increased carbon dioxide levels and temperatures may also be increasing the allergy-triggers in plant foods such as peanuts.
"Climate change is an environmental issue that threatens all life on earth in some way - plants, animals and ecosystems. It is to me the most important issue we face because we're playing with a complex system that we shouldn't think we can control," Paul said.
"We never know when we'll reach a tipping point where things go beyond our control and become ugly for people living in big cities like Sydney, for example. We need to change the way we live our lives to address climate change."
So if we want to help fight climate change, asthma and peanut allergies, the first thing we need to do is tread lightly, so to speak, on the earth: turn off the lights, ride our bikes, be energy efficient using renewable sources like wind and solar power, car pool and work from home if we can, Paul suggests.
"Everything we do, if we think about it in environmentally sustainable terms, can be adjusted or modified with little effort - and it enhances our lives.
"If we all look after our own health and the health of our environment, we'll do a lot better."
Paul entered the OSMR Eureka Prize for Medical Research.
Dr Paul Beggs
Macquarie University, NSW