In angiosperms, pollination is defined as the placement or transfer of pollen from the anther to the stigma of the same flower or another flower. In gymnosperms, pollination involves pollen transfer from the male cone to the female cone. Upon transfer, the pollen germinates to form the pollen tube and the sperm for fertilizing the egg. Pollination has been well studied since the time of Gregor Mendel. Mendel successfully carried out self- as well as cross-pollination in garden peas while studying how characteristics were passed on from one generation to the next. Today’s crops are a result of plant breeding, which employs artificial selection to produce the present-day cultivars. A case in point is today's corn, which is a result of years of breeding that started with its ancestor, teosinte. The teosinte that the ancient Mayans originally began cultivating had tiny seeds—vastly different from today’s relatively giant ears of corn. Interestingly, though these two plants appear to be entirely different, the genetic difference between them is miniscule.
Pollination takes two forms: self-pollination and cross-pollination. Self-pollination occurs when the pollen from the anther is deposited on the stigma of the same flower, or another flower on the same plant. Cross-pollination is the transfer of pollen from the anther of one flower to the stigma of another flower on a different individual of the same species. Self-pollination occurs in flowers where the stamen and carpel mature at the same time, and are positioned so that the pollen can land on the flower’s stigma. This method of pollination does not require an investment from the plant to provide nectar and pollen as food for pollinators.
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Explore this interactive website to review self-pollination and cross-pollination.
Living species are designed to ensure survival of their progeny; those that fail become extinct. Genetic diversity is therefore required so that in changing environmental or stress conditions, some of the progeny can survive. Self-pollination leads to the production of plants with less genetic diversity, since genetic material from the same plant is used to form gametes, and eventually, the zygote. In contrast, cross-pollination—or out-crossing—leads to greater genetic diversity because the microgametophyte and megagametophyte are derived from different plants.
Because cross-pollination allows for more genetic diversity, plants have developed many ways to avoid self-pollination. In some species, the pollen and the ovary mature at different times. These flowers make self-pollination nearly impossible. By the time pollen matures and has been shed, the stigma of this flower is mature and can only be pollinated by pollen from another flower. Some flowers have developed physical features that prevent self-pollination. The primrose is one such flower. Primroses have evolved two flower types with differences in anther and stigma length: the pin-eyed flower has anthers positioned at the pollen tube’s halfway point, and the thrum-eyed flower’s stigma is likewise located at the halfway point. Insects easily cross-pollinate while seeking the nectar at the bottom of the pollen tube. This phenomenon is also known as heterostyly. Many plants, such as cucumber, have male and female flowers located on different parts of the plant, thus making self-pollination difficult. In yet other species, the male and female flowers are borne on different plants (dioecious). All of these are barriers to self-pollination; therefore, the plants depend on pollinators to transfer pollen. The majority of pollinators are biotic agents such as insects (like bees, flies, and butterflies), bats, birds, and other animals. Other plant species are pollinated by abiotic agents, such as wind and water.
Incompatibility Genes in FlowersIn recent decades, incompatibility genes—which prevent pollen from germinating or growing into the stigma of a flower—have been discovered in many angiosperm species. If plants do not have compatible genes, the pollen tube stops growing. Self-incompatibility is controlled by the S (sterility) locus. Pollen tubes have to grow through the tissue of the stigma and style before they can enter the ovule. The carpel is selective in the type of pollen it allows to grow inside. The interaction is primarily between the pollen and the stigma epidermal cells. In some plants, like cabbage, the pollen is rejected at the surface of the stigma, and the unwanted pollen does not germinate. In other plants, pollen tube germination is arrested after growing one-third the length of the style, leading to pollen tube death. Pollen tube death is due either to apoptosis (programmed cell death) or to degradation of pollen tube RNA. The degradation results from the activity of a ribonuclease encoded by the S locus. The ribonuclease is secreted from the cells of the style in the extracellular matrix, which lies alongside the growing pollen tube.
In summary, self-incompatibility is a mechanism that prevents self-fertilization in many flowering plant species. The working of this self-incompatibility mechanism has important consequences for plant breeders because it inhibits the production of inbred and hybrid plants.