Pollen is a fine to coarse powdery substance comprising pollen grains which are male microgametophytes of seed plants, which produce male gametes (sperm cells). Pollen grains have a hard coat made of sporopollenin that protects the gametophytes during the process of their movement from the stamens to the pistil of flowering plants, or from the male cone to the female cone of coniferous plants. If pollen lands on a compatible pistil or female cone, it germinates, producing a pollen tube that transfers the sperm to the ovule containing the female gametophyte. Individual pollen grains are small enough to require magnification to see detail. The study of pollen is called palynology and is highly useful in paleoecology, paleontology, archaeology, and forensics. Pollen in plants is used for transferring haploid male genetic material from the anther of a single flower to the stigma of another in cross-pollination. In a case of self-pollination, this process takes place from the anther of a flower to the stigma of the same flower.
In angiosperms, during flower development the anther is composed of a mass of cells that appear undifferentiated, except for a partially differentiated dermis. As the flower develops, four groups of sporogenous cells form within the anther. The fertile sporogenous cells are surrounded by layers of sterile cells that grow into the wall of the pollen sac. Some of the cells grow into nutritive cells that supply nutrition for the microspores that form by meiotic division from the sporogenous cells.
Except in the case of some submerged aquatic plants, the mature pollen grain has a double wall. The vegetative and generative cells are surrounded by a thin delicate wall of unaltered cellulose called the endospore or intine, and a tough resistant outer cuticularized wall composed largely of sporopollenin called the exospore or exine. The exine often bears spines or warts, or is variously sculptured, and the character of the markings is often of value for identifying genus, species, or even cultivar or individual. The spines may be less than a micron in length (spinulus, plural spinuli) referred to as spinulose (scabrate), or longer than a micron (echina, echinae) referred to as echinate. Various terms also describe the sculpturing such as reticulate, a net like appearance consisting of elements (murus, muri) separated from each other by a lumen (plural lumina). These reticulations may also be referred to as brochi.
In non-flowering seed plants, pollen germinates in the pollen chamber, located beneath the micropyle, underneath the integuments of the ovule. A pollen tube is produced, which grows into the nucellus to provide nutrients for the developing sperm cells. Sperm cells of Pinophyta and Gnetophyta are without flagella, and are carried by the pollen tube, while those of Cycadophyta and Ginkgophyta have many flagella.
Pollen allergies are common in polar and temperate climate zones, where production of pollen is seasonal. In the tropics pollen production varies less by the season, and allergic reactions less. In northern Europe, common pollens for allergies are those of birch and alder, and in late summer wormwood and different forms of hay. Grass pollen is also associated with asthma exacerbations in some people, a phenomenon termed thunderstorm asthma.
Allergy immunotherapy (AIT) treatment involves administering doses of allergens to accustom the body to pollen, thereby inducing specific long-term tolerance. Allergy immunotherapy can be administered orally (as sublingual tablets or sublingual drops), or by injections under the skin (subcutaneous). Discovered by Leonard Noon and John Freeman in 1911, allergy immunotherapy represents the only causative treatment for respiratory allergies.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not found any harmful effects of bee pollen consumption, except from the usual allergies. However, FDA does not allow bee pollen marketers in the United States to make health claims about their produce, as no scientific basis for these has ever been proven. Furthermore, there are possible dangers not only from allergic reactions but also from contaminants such as pesticides and from fungi and bacteria growth related to poor storage procedures. A manufacturers's claim that pollen collecting helps the bee colonies is also controversial.