Scientists Say: Pollen

an electron microscope image of pollen grains

This is an artificially colored microscopic view of pollen grains. Each color is pollen grain from a different type of flower. The grains have been magnified 500 times; each one is too small to see with the naked eye.

Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility/Dartmouth College/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Pollen (noun, “PAH-len”)

This is a mass of small grains released by seed plants. Each individual piece of pollen is called a pollen grain. Each grain contains a reproductive cell that corresponds to a sperm cell in an animal. A pollen grain can fertilize the egg cell of other plant of the same species, eventually forming a seed that can grow into another plant.

Unlike the sperm cells of animals, pollen cannot move on its own. So plants have evolved different ways to get their pollen to the egg cells of other plants. Some pollen is hidden in flowers that have delicious nectar. When insects, such as bees, or other animals slurp up the nectar, they end up coated in pollen. When those animals move on to the next flower, they take the pollen with them — helping the plant in the process.

Other pollen is simply spread on gusts of wind — no animals needed. Unfortunately, the tiny grains can get in our eyes and noses. This can make some people’s eyes water and their noses run. They aren’t sick. They’re just trying to wash out all the pollen that has blown in their faces.

In a sentence

Scientists studied ancient pollen grains to show that a rainforest once grew in Antarctica.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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