The 3D Pollen Project: An open repository of three-dimensional data for outreach, education and research

Oliver J. Wilson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Pollen is vitally important in the natural world, the scientific research which studies it, and society at large. Pollen is beautiful and immensely resilient, records millions of years of evolutionary, ecological and climatic change, underpins globally critical ecosystem functions and services, helps solve crimes, could revolutionise medicine – and, as one of humanity's most significant allergens, irritates hundreds of millions of people around the world. However, engaging non-specialists with pollen-related research can be challenging, because pollen's microscopic nature means all interactions with it must be visual, predominantly through static two-dimensional images (which obscure the grains' full 3D nature and beauty), complex stratigraphic diagrams (which can be impenetrable to non-specialists), or specialist microscopy (which adds complexity and expense). A recent development has been to use accurate and larger-than-life 3D-printed models, allowing audiences to interact with pollen and related research in new, tactile ways. 

This paper introduces the 3D Pollen Project, an open-access repository of 3D pollen scans and surface files. Confocal laser scanning microscopy was used to produce accurate series of tightly-focused cross-section images through pollen grains, which were reconstructed to produce 3D-printable surface files; both specific methods and underpinning general principles are outlined to enable others to emulate the work. Matching the refractive indices of sample mountant and objective lens immersion medium is shown to be particularly important for producing high-quality scans. The 35 species included in the 3D Pollen Project to date cover a broad (if Euro-centric) geographic distribution and a comprehensive suite of pollen's morphological features. These models, made available online for free download, have been used in a very wide range of contexts around the world, in outreach, education and research. Finally, future steps for the 3D Pollen Project are discussed: growing its coverage into a truly globally representative sample of global pollen diversity; enhancing the quality of its data; and developing the ways in which its resources are used.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104860
Number of pages11
JournalReview of Palaeobotany and Palynology
Early online date14 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023 The Author
Funding Information:
The 3D Pollen Project has been funded by Mangorolla CIC through the ‘I'm A Scientist’ competition (Neptunium Zone, 2017), the University of Reading Teaching and Learning Development Fund ( TLDF_mini/2018/126 , A3591410 ), and the Natural Environment Research Council ( NE/X001660/1 ).

Funding Information:
Many people have helped and supported the 3D Pollen Project along its journey. The work described took place alongside my PhD at the University of Reading, which was supervised by Francis Mayle and funded by a University of Reading Graduate Teaching Assistant studentship , and when I was a visiting student at the University of Hull with M. Jane Bunting. I am grateful to Cordula Kemp and Ann Lowry at Hull for their assistance with the confocal microscopy. My thanks go to everyone who has provided support and encouragement at various stages of the project, particularly Katherine Holt, Hannah Worthen, Francis Mayle, M. Jane Bunting and Robert Marchant. M. Jane Bunting (HLU-CCC samples), Alastair Culham (RNG-P…), Francis Mayle (RNG-TPRG), Felipe Franco-Gaviria (EXR-EXPR), Benjamin Bell (MANCH-PolRefCol) and Stuart Wagenius, Gabriel Hutchinson and Michael LaScaleia (CHIC-EchProj) provided the samples incorporated in the project so far; thank you too to everyone who has sent specimens which have still to be included in the database. Work on the 3D Pollen Project continues under a postdoctoral Knowledge Exchange Fellowship at the University of York, funded by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council . I thank Robert Marchant and Francis Mayle for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript, as well as two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback.


  • 3D pollen
  • 3D printing
  • Confocal microscopy
  • Open-access database
  • Outreach and engagement

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