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Vol. 12 No. 2 - April 2006

Use of Pollen in Plant Biomonitoring of Air Pollution

By: Jean-Pierre Garrec


There has been an ever-increasing interest in plant bio-monitoring of air quality. This paper discusses the possibilities of using pollen as biomonitor to evaluate air pollution. The advantages and limitations of methods that use pollen as biomonitoring agent are also described.


Numerous studies have been devoted to the impact of air pollutants on pollens but in contrast, only few works are available on the use of pollen to evaluate atmospheric pollution (i.e. pollen as bioindicator).

Pollen as other plant or animal bioindicators, does not provide information on absolute concentrations of pollutants in the air, however, it indicates, with accuracy, their relative levels. Bioindicators can give relevant information on pollutants: their identities, their levels and their geographical localisation, and may eventually help us drawing pollution maps. Actually, the methods using plants for biomonitoring of air quality may turn out to be successful, as they are simple, cheap and fast and can supplement the classical physico-chemical methods.

This small paper discusses the possibilities of using pollen for air pollution biomonitoring; the advantages and limitations of methods using pollen as the biomonitor to evaluate air quality are also described in this paper.

Pollen as Air Pollution Bioindicator

The information on the pollutants is derived from the study of the biological response of pollen to air pollution. As a lot of primary and secondary physiological processes are involved, the physiological responses usable for bioindication could be numerous ranging from molecular level to pollen functioning.

Pollen used as bioindicator gives, from its physiological perturbations, time integrated information on doses of pollutants present in the air. We can say that pollen does not indicate levels of pollutants, but it measures their biological impact. Thereby pollen, as other bioindicators, provides particularly original and interesting information on the potential adverse effects of pollutants on living organisms. This direct assessment of risk by bioindication methods is of greater importance compared to the physicochemical methods.

If in the atmosphere the pollutants have a direct impact on the physiology of pollen, they have also an indirect impact on its ontogenesis via their effects on the producing plants. It may be pointed out that this ontogenesis is also subordinated to the other environmental factors (atmospheric and/or edaphic) acting on the producing plants.

When pollen is used as bioindicator and we want to eliminate these indirect effects, we have to work with pollen coming from plants cultivated in an unpolluted area (greenhouse) and then introduce “in situ” at the beginning of the study (active bioindication), and not with pollen coming from local endemic plants (passive bioindication) with unknown environmental history.

Another easier solution is the “transplant method”. In this case the pollen is first collected from flowers in an unpolluted area, and then exposed in the polluted sites inside narrow-mesh bags.

These active bioindication methods have the advantage of being easily standardized at the level of the producing plant and allow to control the pollen characteristics, origin and quality. The “transplant methods” inform with precision how long the pollen has been contaminated.

Pollen as Air Pollution Bioaccumulator

In this case, information on the pollutants is based on the study of their accumulation on the pollen. The accumulated pollutants are quantified after extraction from the pollinic matrix and from physico-chemical analysis.

Due to the rugosity of the micro relief at the surface of pollen (exine), and also due to its lipophilicity, the pollen is a very good accumulator of all types of pollutants: gaseous or particulate on one hand and organic or non-organic on the other hand. This accumulation is mainly dependent on physico-chemical processes at the surface level, and for this reason is not much influenced by the physiological condition of the pollen or of the producing plant. Practically, all the pollutants (pesticides, HAP, heavy metals, fluoride, etc…) can be accumulated on pollen for passive or active bioindication.

Pollen used as bioaccumulator gives information directly linked to pollutant concentrations. The accumulation of pollutants is dependent on the fluctuating characteristics of the air as it is influenced by the dynamic equilibrium between pollen and atmosphere. Indeed, numerous factors tend to continuously eliminate, chemically or mechanically, the pollutants accumulated on the pollen surface: rain, wind, dust, rubbing, etc…

But this information is never instantaneous, as we have to take into account an equilibrium time between atmosphere and pollen which is not very well known.

To collect enough biological material, pollen is always directly sampled from the flowers, but in polluted areas, by active or passive bioindication, we never know precisely the contact time between pollutants and pollen. To eliminate this problem, we have to use, as with other bioindicators, the “transplant methods”.


Plant biomonitoring methods will be never a substitute to physicochemical methods for air pollution studies, but they constitute complementary methods, as they provide essential information on biological impact of pollutants.

Among these methods of plant biomonitoring, the method using pollen as bio-accumulators or as bioindicators could be a good one due to the peculiar characteristics of the pollen surface. Unfortunately, some constraints in relation to pollen physiology limit the wide application of this method “in situ”. These constraints are as follows;

  • For facility and rapidity reasons, pollen is generally directly sampled from flowers in polluted areas, but in this case it is impossible to know with precision

  1. the contact time between pollutants and pollen

  2. the influence of producing plant environment on pollen physiology during its ontogenesis, and

  3. the quality of the sampling sites including its homogeneity and representativity.

  • Pollen production takes place over a limited period during the year, and it is very often irregular.

  • Pollen life-time is always short (few days only) and it could be a limiting factor for a good accumulation of pollutants or for producing measurable physiological perturbations.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Garrec is at the Laboratoire Pollution Atmospherique, INRA Centre de Recherche de Nancy, 54280 Champenoux, France (E-mail address: garrec@nancy.inra.fr)

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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