Decoding plant-pollinator interactions

Last updated: 2 Mar, 2017

Studying plant-pollinator interactions is critical for our understanding of the impacts of land-use and climate changes on ecosystems, but visually identifying species is very costly in time and labour. In their Viewpoint article, published in New Phytologist, Jana Vamosi and colleagues describe how advances in the DNA-based identification of species has led to new insights into the diversity and specialisation of plant-pollinator interactions.


DNA barcoding an unknown species requires the sequencing of a particular gene or specific region of its genome, known to be variable between species. By comparing the resulting DNA sequence with a library of known species, researchers can identify the sample, often with a higher degree of accuracy than trying to distinguish visually between morphologically near-identical species. Vamosi et al. describe how innovative new metabarcoding techniques can distinguish multiple species from a single mixed sample, leading to substantial reductions in time and cost when people hours are considered. Some studies have shown that even trace amounts of pollinator DNA on the flower or in the nectar can be detected and identified, providing further insight into the total range of visitors a plant receives.


Identifying separate pollen grains on a generalist pollinator can be tricky. Image credit: Smudge. Used under licence: CC BY-SA 2.0.


These novel approaches can allow field studies to take place on a landscape scale, providing a much clearer understanding of the plant-pollinator dynamics in a particular ecosystem and opening up new avenues for research. One key topic of interest is pollinator specialisation, an important factor when deciding which species are of the greatest conservation importance. Human activities can have a disproportionately large impact on specialists, further reducing the stability of a community, so improving our understanding of these mutualisms is vital for predicting how ecosystems should be protected in the future.


Read the paper in New Phytologist:

Vamosi, J.C., Gong, Y-B., Adamowicz, S.J. and Packer, L. (2016). Forecasting pollination declines through DNA barcoding: the potential contributions of macroecological and macroevolutionary scales of inquiry. New Phytologist. doi: 10.1111/nph.14356.


Read the full version of this post on the New Phyt blog: Scanning the genetic barcode of plant-pollinator interactions.


Sarah Jose