Air-seq: using DNA sequencing to provide early warning of airborne pathogens

Highly sensitive, real-time, in-field detection of airborne pathogens

Project Summary.

Led by: Richard Leggett

Start date: 2015


Air-seq technology has been in development at the Earlham Institute since 2015, combining the latest DNA sequencing technologies with rapid and sensitive custom bioinformatics analysis software. 

Originally conceived as a tool for in-field surveillance of agricultural pathogens (particularly fungal pathogens that threaten some of our most crucial crops), we have carried out a number of proof-of-concept trials to validate the Air-seq technology. We have expanded our focus to include the detection of bacterial and viral human pathogens in urban environments, working with Kromek Plc - a UK-based engineering company specialising in the development of sensors - as part of a project funded by DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. 

Air-seq represents a truly unbiased technology capable of detecting any biological agent. The future applications of this technology are far-reaching.


AirSeq machinery placed in a field of young wheat, with a grey, stormy backdrop.



Impact statement.

Within the agricultural sector, early detection and quantification of crop pathogens has the potential to reduce the use of pesticides, reduce crop losses due to the damage by pathogens, and, based on exact knowledge of pathogen levels and strain, improve crop spraying results thanks to better selection of agrochemicals. The technology can also help to identify novel pathogens, new strains of known pathogens, and help develop better modelling of disease epidemiology.

For homeland security and public health monitoring, the project is developing an automated system for detection and geolocation of airborne biological threats. This would enable the detection of minute traces of pathogenic agents circulating in the air. We have been able to demonstrate extremely high sensitivity and specificity rates for the technology, and significantly reduced the time from air sampling to the detection, compared with conventional lab-based diagnostics that can take days and are generally species-specific.

The outbreak of COVID-19 demonstrated the significant impact of biological threats on public health and the global economy. The ongoing project with Kromek has the potential to demonstrate the positive impact of a mobile bio-surveillance system which is enabled through sequencing and bioinformatics tools developed at the Earlham Institute. This technology could be installed in high-footfall areas such as hospitals, mass-transportation hubs, and even entertainment venues.