Dr. John Lednicky’s phone is working overtime lately. Ever since a new human coronavirus burst onto the global stage last December, renowned virologists have sought Dr. Lednicky’s expertise. Even airline personnel have called, seeking guidelines for how to decontaminate their planes.
Dr. Lednicky, a research professor, is a microbiologist and molecular biologist in the University of Florida’s College of Public Health and Health Professions and the Emerging Pathogens Institute where he studies an array of disease-causing microorganisms. He has spent decades investigating coronaviruses that affect people, bats, birds, cats, cows, dogs, ferrets, mice and even pigs.
His lab offers something unique: expertise in aerovirology, or the science of studying viruses in the air we breathe. The new virus sweeping the globe, SARS-CoV-2, is thought to have originated in bats before spilling over into people, possibly via an intermediary mammal, where it causes a disease called COVID-19. Although scientists are still studying how SARS-CoV-2 spreads, many suspect one way is by airborne routes; and as luck would have it, Dr. Lednicky happens to excel at aerovirology. But to do this work properly, he points out, researchers must be able to not only detect viruses from air samples, which he calls “easy,” but also then recover and grow them in cell cultures, a process known as isolation, which poses many challenges.
“What a lot of people don’t know how to do is isolate the virus out of air samples,” Dr. Lednicky says. “That is something my lab specializes in. You have to be able to know if there is a risk or not from what is in the air.”
Dr. Lednicky worked with engineers at UF to improve air sampling equipment so that viruses, teeny tiny bits of matter measured in microns and nanometers, could be efficiently and effectively collected intact. There are only two air samplers in existence like theirs, and they cost around $60,000 each to build. Other air samplers are much less effective at collecting viruses from air, he says, and many inactivate viruses during the collection process. This makes it difficult to know whether or not certain viruses use airborne transmission routes to actively infect other hosts.