Pollen under the microscope

[Sound of birds chirping] [Music plays] A plants flashy
display of colour tells insects and birds
that there’s food here. Free food! Sweet and sugary nectar.
Irresistible. But in nature there’s no
such thing as a free lunch. Plants use insects, mammals and
birds to transport pollen, a light grainy powder that
sticks to the insects body. And when it’s re-deposited by the
insect on a neighbouring flower it begins the process
of reproduction. Under the microscope grains of
pollen look incredibly varied. But each species has its
own shape and structure as individual as a fingerprint. (Andrew Thornhill) Some pollen is
really round and has air sacks, so that’s usually
wind pollinated. Others have spikes on them, so
that’s more insect pollinated. Some are bigger, and they’re
pollinated by birds. But for some of the
pollen we don’t really know why they’re different
shapes and sizes and have different form. So we’re still working out why
there are lots of different types. (David Lovell) Right now the
process of analysing pollen is pretty much looking
down a microscope at all the different grains. You can’t look at all the grains,
you have to look at a sub-sample. It’s quite a pain
staking approach. (Narrator) And a job no machine
was smart enough to do, Until now. (Leanne Bischof) The
pollen microscope is an instrument
that is developed by Massey University in New Zealand to automatically capture images of little pollen
grains on slides, to make measurements
about those images, and that will allow
you to classify, identify the type of pollen that
that particular grain belongs to. (Simon Haberle) Well essentially what the microscope is doing is trying to find certain shapes
and sizes of particles, and we can actually tell
it to find particles of roughly spherical shape
and circumcise range. So the microscope lens will
actually go over that slide and take a low
resolution picture and then it will shift
to a second lens, and under high magnification
the microscope will then take images
of the pollen grain, right from the top
down to the bottom. And it takes nine images and stacks those images together,
a bit like a pack of cards, and those nine images will then be transformed in to a three
dimensional image of the pollen grain. (Leanne Bischof)One
of the applications is to be able to understand the
biodiversity in a local environment. Another is in conjunction
with CSIRO entomology; they’ve got a huge
collection of insects that are used in pollinating. So not just bees but beetles, and we’re hoping the
instrument will be able to assist in the assessment of what species are important
to which eco systems. (John La Salle) Right now there are over 1,300 different
species of bees in Australia, but for the most part we don’t
know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Here we have a variety of
bees in the collection, they’re data based, we know
exactly where they came from, exactly when they
were collected, and they all have
pollen on them. If we can come in, automate the process of figuring out all those pollination
associations on all these bees, we can build a pretty
good library very quickly of pollination biology that’s
going to help us understand the eco system services that
are supplied by pollinators. And help us get the right pieces when we try and put the puzzle back
together of restoring eco systems. (Narrator) The pollen microscope is also expected to
make a big contribution to a very ambitious project. (Donald Hobern) The Atlas
of Living Australia is going to be the largest integrated aggregation of information
about Australian species, informs that can readily
be re-used by researchers. We do want to make the best
possible future for this country, including the preservation
of as much as possible of the biodiversity around us. And in order to do that, understanding what
we’ve got now, what its needs and its
characteristics are is really the base line from which
everything else will follow. Pollen is only one aspect of
biodiversity quite clearly. But we are very interested
in the fact that it does seem that pollen
is something which can very often be
identified through the kind of automated processes
we’re talking about. It’s clearly very important
for us to understand whether plants are going to be
able to continue to flower, develop pollen, to have seeds
that are set as climate changes. And also to make sure that the insects
and other organisms that are responsible for moving pollen between plants are able to continue
to do their job. And we understand far
too little in detail about the specifics of
those interactions. So putting some focus on pollen, putting some effort into improving our ability to recognise
pollen from different species, allows us to start
thinking about different places in that whole
chain of connections where we can do some research and gain a better
understanding of how effective the pollination services
of all those animals really are. [Music plays]

6 thoughts on “Pollen under the microscope

  1. Nice documentary and very hopeful but Dr LaSalle needs to remember that some of those insects in the national collection were donated AFTER they were washed of pollen. Botanists collecting insects on the flowers they study want to know if the flower visitor was carrying pollen of the host flower and whether it contacted the stigma during the visit. Such techniques were pioneered in the lab of R.B. Knox (U. of Melbourne) over 30 years ago.

  2. It is nice to see the colleague, specialiston chalcid parasitic wasps, Dr LaSalle, in this video. Best wishes!

  3. Fascinating video! As a beekeeper I'm curious if the software can be used to identify pollen in pictures provided by third parties (waves hello), assuming known magnification and size of grains, and that you have a database covering species found in northern Europe (UK)… I want a more knowledgeable source than me to identify what my bees are foraging on.

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