1Particle Chemistry Department, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Mainz, Germany
2School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA
3Dept. of Chem. & Biochem. & CIRES, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA
4Applied Physics Department, Institute of Physics, University of São Paulo, Brazil
5Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research, Leipzig, Germany
6Institute for Atmospheric Physics, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany
Abstract. The detection of primary biological material in submicron aerosol by means of thermal desorption/electron impact ionization aerosol mass spectrometry was investigated. Mass spectra of amino acids, carbohydrates, small peptides, and proteins, all of which are key building blocks of biological particles, were recorded in laboratory experiments. Several characteristic marker fragments were identified. The intensity of the marker signals relative to the total organic mass spectrum allows for an estimation of the content of primary biological material in ambient organic aerosol. The developed method was applied to mass spectra recorded during AMAZE-08, a field campaign conducted in the pristine rainforest of the central Amazon Basin, Brazil, during the wet season of February and March 2008. The low abundance of identified marker fragments places upper limits of 7.5% for amino acids and 5.6% for carbohydrates on the contribution of primary biological aerosol particles (PBAP) to the submicron organic aerosol mass concentration during this time period. Upper limits for the absolute submicron concentrations for both compound classes range from 0.01 to 0.1 μg m−3. Carbohydrates and proteins (composed of amino acids) make up for about two thirds of the dry mass of a biological cell. Thus, our findings suggest an upper limit for the PBAP mass fraction of about 20% to the submicron organic aerosol measured in Amazonia during AMAZE-08.