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.
Pollen itself is not the male gamete. Each pollen grain contains vegetative (non-reproductive) cells (only a single cell in most flowering plants but several in other seed plants) and a generative (reproductive) cell. In flowering plants the vegetative tube cell produces the pollen tube, and the generative cell divides to form the two sperm cells.
Pollen is produced in the microsporangia in the male cone of a conifer or other gymnosperm or in the anthers of an angiosperm flower. Pollen grains come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and surface markings characteristic of the species (see electron micrograph, right). Pollen grains of pines, firs, and spruces are winged. The smallest pollen grain, that of the forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.), is around 6 µm (0.006 mm) in diameter. Wind-borne pollen grains can be as large as about 90–100 µm.
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.
In a process called microsporogenesis, four haploid microspores are produced from each diploid sporogenous cell (microsporocyte, pollen mother cell or meiocyte), after meiotic division. After the formation of the four microspores, which are contained by callose walls, the development of the pollen grain walls begins. The callose wall is broken down by an enzyme called callase and the freed pollen grains grow in size and develop their characteristic shape and form a resistant outer wall called the exine and an inner wall called the intine. The exine is what is preserved in the fossil record. Two basic types of microsporogenesis are recognised, simultaneous and successive. In simultaneous microsporogenesis meiotic steps I and II are completed prior to cytokinesis, whereas in successive microsporogenesis cytokinesis follows. While there may be a continuum with intermediate forms, the type of microsporogenesis has systematic significance. The predominant form amongst the monocots is successive, but there are important exceptions.