Contrary to popular belief, pollen isn’t plant sperm. It’s a protective covering made of sporopollenin, a hardy biological polymer, that contain sperm cells. Polymers are large molecules made from repeating base units. For example, cellulose (another plant product) is a polymer made from repeating glucose molecules. The sporopollenin structure differs from plant to plant. It is generally resistant to chemicals and digestive enzymes, though depending on the plant, some pollen grains are more resistant to degradation than others. This is why pollen can last for millions of years in the fossil record.
Recently, scientists were able to determine the structure of sporopollenin. This almost indestructible polymer is made of polyvinyl alcohol units and hydrocarbon chains, all cross-linked with acetal linkages. This structure evolved to absorb UV light, and thus protect the sperm cells inside from sun damage. Since pollen spends a lot of time drifting in the wind or hanging out on the feet and backs of animals, it’s important that they land on a female plant with their DNA intact.
When people have pollen allergies, their immune systems aren’t reacting to the sporopollenin. Instead, other proteins in the pollen that are necessary for fertilization. Altogether, about fifteen different distinct groups of plant proteins that cause allergies have been identified. There have been some studies that try to link food allergies (such as a soy allergy) to pollen allergies. While there are some similarities, scientists don’t think that there is a correlation between allergies caused by ingesting plant products and allergies caused by pollen.
What is Palynology?
Palynology is the study of pollen, both today and in the past. Since sporopollenin is so tough and plants have always produced a ton of pollen, there’s plenty of pollen in the fossil record. Different scientists use pollen to get information about what the world was like millions of years ago.
The oil industry uses fossilized pollen to figure out where oil or natural gas might be in rock layers. Fossilized pollen in old artifacts can tell us what people ate back then. Even pollen in feces can give us clues about the diets of our ancestors. Pollen can also be used to study past environments, plant evolution, and plant relationships.
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written by Science with Evie