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Pollen grains

Maurizio De Angelis

Download this image from Wellcome Collection.

Illustration of pollen grains being released from a flower in the Asteraceae family. Asteraceae is one of the largest families of flowering plants and is commonly known as the aster, daisy, sunflower or composite family. Pollen grains contain the male sperm cell and are produced in the anther, one of the male parts of the flower. They are carried to other flowers – primarily by insects, birds and the wind – so flowering plants can reproduce. They look like fine dust and are a common cause of hay fever or seasonal allergies. Pollen grains come in all shapes and sizes, but they are usually between 0.01 and 0.1 mm in size.

Why do plants produce pollen?

Flowering plants produce pollen so they can make seeds and reproduce. Pollen grains are made and stored in pollen sacs in the anther, one of the male parts in the centre of the flower. They contain the male sperm cells and must first be transferred to the female part of a flower to fertilise an egg cell, so it can develop into a seed. This process of moving pollen grains from the male to the female part of the flower is called pollination and is a very important step in the life cycle of plants. Pollen is primarily carried between plants by insects, birds and the wind. The smell and bright colours of flowers attract insects such as bees and butterflies to feed on the sweet nectar they produce. While they are feeding, pollen grains rub off onto their bodies, which they carry with them when going to feed in other flowers. Transferring pollen between different plants of the same species (cross-pollination) is genetically favourable and produces stronger plants that are more likely to survive in a changing environment.