Studentship at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne reveals the complex world of pollen

February 15 / 151

SEM image of a pollen grain of the native species Persicaria decipiens. Image: Heather Merrylees 
SEM image of a pollen grain of the native species Persicaria decipiens. Image: Heather Merrylees 

Spiny, net-like, smooth, or a combination of patterns, the sculpted ornamentation of the surface of tiny grains of pollen has been captured by Botany student Heather Merrylees, recipient of the highly competitive Royal Botanic Gardens’ Jim Willis Studentship.

Reticulate, striate, perforate, spinulose or microspinulose? For 8 weeks, these were the questions Heather Merrylees was answering as she used Scanning Electron Microscopy to capture images of pollen grains belonging to the buckwheat family Polygonaceae, carefully documenting and describing their appearance.

Once analysed in combination with existing genetic information, Heather’s images will contribute to teasing out the evolutionary relationships of the buckwheat family. This may have a wide range of applications, from pinpointing which groups within this plant family species are invasive and economically disastrous, to the fascinating world of plant forensics, where pollen grains can provide evidence as to where a person or animal has been. 

“It was fantastic to work with such diverse and beautiful pollen, to be discovering something new every day…it’s what drives my passion for research,” said Ms Merrylees.

Chosen for her obvious passion for plant science, already considerable knowledge, and diligence, the studentship win was “unbelievable” for Ms Merrylees, capping a recently completed Bachelor of Science (Plant Sciences). It is an opportunity that has proved decisive, with Heather enrolled in a Master of Science (Botany) this year and hooked on plant systematics, a field in which she has already made a wonderful start.

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