Articles | Volume 5, issue 1
Research article
09 Jan 2012
Research article |  | 09 Jan 2012

Autofluorescence of atmospheric bioaerosols – fluorescent biomolecules and potential interferences

C. Pöhlker, J. A. Huffman, and U. Pöschl

Abstract. Primary biological aerosol particles (PBAP) are an important subset of air particulate matter with a substantial contribution to the organic aerosol fraction and potentially strong effects on public health and climate. Recent progress has been made in PBAP quantification by utilizing real-time bioaerosol detectors based on the principle that specific organic molecules of biological origin such as proteins, coenzymes, cell wall compounds and pigments exhibit intrinsic fluorescence. The properties of many fluorophores have been well documented, but it is unclear which are most relevant for detection of atmospheric PBAP. The present study provides a systematic synthesis of literature data on potentially relevant biological fluorophores. We analyze and discuss their relative importance for the detection of fluorescent biological aerosol particles (FBAP) by online instrumentation for atmospheric measurements such as the ultraviolet aerodynamic particle sizer (UV-APS) or the wide issue bioaerosol sensor (WIBS).

In addition, we provide new laboratory measurement data for selected compounds using bench-top fluorescence spectroscopy. Relevant biological materials were chosen for comparison with existing literature data and to fill in gaps of understanding. The excitation-emission matrices (EEM) exhibit pronounced peaks at excitation wavelengths of ~280 nm and ~360 nm, confirming the suitability of light sources used for online detection of FBAP. They also show, however, that valuable information is missed by instruments that do not record full emission spectra at multiple wavelengths of excitation, and co-occurrence of multiple fluorophores within a detected sample will likely confound detailed molecular analysis. Selected non-biological materials were also analyzed to assess their possible influence on FBAP detection and generally exhibit only low levels of background-corrected fluorescent emission. This study strengthens the hypothesis that ambient supermicron particle fluorescence in wavelength ranges used for most FBAP instruments is likely to be dominated by biological material and that such instrumentation is able to discriminate between FBAP and non-biological material in many situations. More detailed follow-up studies on single particle fluorescence are still required to reduce these uncertainties further, however.