Tracking pollen with quantum dots

February 14, 2019

A pollination biologist from Stellenbosch University in South Africa is using quantum dots to track the fate of individual pollen grains. This is breaking new ground in a field of research that has been hampered by the lack of a universal method to track pollen for over a century.

In an article published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution this week, Dr Corneile Minnaar describes this novel method, which will enable pollination biologists to track the whole pollination process from the first visit by a pollinator to its endpoint - either successfully transferred to another flower's stigma or lost along the way.

Despite over two hundred years of detailed research on pollination, Minnaar says, researchers do not know for sure where most of the microscopically tiny pollen grains actually land up once they leave flowers: "Plants produce massive amounts of pollen, but it looks like more than 90% of it never reaches stigmas. For the tiny fraction of pollen grains that make their way to stigmas, the journey is often unclear--which pollinators transferred the grains and from where?"

Starting in 2015, Minnaar decided to tread where many others have thus far failed, and took up the challenge through his PhD research in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University (SU).

"Most plant species on earth are reliant on insects for pollination, including more than 30% of the food crops we eat. With insects facing rapid global decline, it is crucial that we understand which insects are important pollinators of different plants--this starts with tracking pollen," he explains.

He came upon the idea for a pollen-tracking method after reading an article on the use of quantum dots to track cancer cells in rats ( Quantum dots are semiconductor nanocrystals that are so small, they behave like artificial atoms. When exposed to UV light, they emit extremely bright light in a range of possible colours. In the case of pollen grains, he figured out that quantum dots with "fat-loving" (lipophilic) ligands would theoretically stick to the fatty outer layer of pollen grains, called pollenkitt, and the glowing colours of the quantum dots can then be used to uniquely "label" pollen grains to see where they end up.

The next step was to find a cost-effective way to view the fluorescing pollen grains under a field dissection microscope. At that stage Minnaar was still using a toy pen from a family restaurant with a little UV LED light that he borrowed from one of his professors.

"I decided to design a fluorescence box that can fit under a dissection microscope. And, because I wanted people to use this method, I designed a box that can easily be 3D-printed at a cost of about R5,000, including the required electronic components." (view video at

So far, the method and excitation box have proven itself as an easy and relatively inexpensive method to track individual pollen grains: "I've done studies where I caught the insects after they have visited the plant with quantum-dot labelled anthers, and you can see where the pollen is placed, and which insects actually carry more or less pollen."

But the post-labelling part of the work still requires hours and hours of painstaking counting and checking: "I think I've probably counted more than a hundred thousand pollen grains these last three years," he laughs.

As a postdoctoral fellow in the research group of Prof Bruce Anderson in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University, Minnaar will continue to use the method to investigate the many unanswered questions in this field.
The article, "Using quantum dots as pollen labels to track the fate of individual pollen grains" was published on Wednesday, 13 February 2019, in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution and is available online at (an earlier non-peer reviewed version of the article is available for free on bioRxiv:

Stellenbosch University

Related Quantum Dots Articles from Brightsurf:

'Growing' active sites on quantum dots for robust H2 photogeneration
Chinese researchers had achieved site- and spatial- selective integration of earth-abundant metal ions in semiconductor quantum dots (QDs) for efficient and robust photocatalytic H2 evolution from water.

New insights into the energy levels in quantum dots
Researchers from Basel, Bochum and Copenhagen have gained new insights into the energy states of quantum dots.

What a pair! Coupled quantum dots may offer a new way to store quantum information
Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and their colleagues have for the first time created and imaged a novel pair of quantum dots -- tiny islands of confined electric charge that act like interacting artificial atoms.

Spinning quantum dots
A new paper in EPJ B presents a theoretical analysis of electron spins in moving semiconductor quantum dots, showing how these can be controlled by electric fields in a way that suggests they may be usable as information storage and processing components of quantum computers.

Controlling the charge state of organic molecule quantum dots in a 2D nanoarray
Australian researchers have fabricated a self-assembled, carbon-based nanofilm where the charge state (ie, electronically neutral or positive) can be controlled at the level of individual molecules.

Modified quantum dots capture more energy from light and lose less to heat
Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists have synthesized magnetically-doped quantum dots that capture the kinetic energy of electrons created by ultraviolet light before it's wasted as heat.

Using quantum dots and a smartphone to find killer bacteria
A combination of off-the-shelf quantum dot nanotechnology and a smartphone camera soon could allow doctors to identify antibiotic-resistant bacteria in just 40 minutes, potentially saving patient lives.

Synthesizing single-crystalline hexagonal graphene quantum dots
A KAIST team has designed a novel strategy for synthesizing single-crystalline graphene quantum dots, which emit stable blue light.

US Naval Research Laboratory 'connects the dots' for quantum networks
Researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory developed a novel technique that could enable new technologies that use properties of quantum physics for computing, communication and sensing, which may lead to 'neuromorphic' or brain-inspired computing.

Quantum rebar: Quantum dots enhance stability of solar-harvesting perovskite crystals
Engineering researchers have combined two emerging technologies for next-generation solar power -- and discovered that each one helps stabilize the other.

Read More: Quantum Dots News and Quantum Dots Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to