Pollen sterols are associated with phylogeny and environment but not with pollinator guilds

Pengjuan Zu*, Hauke Koch, Orlando Schwery, Samuel Pironon, Charlotte Phillips, Ian Ondo, Iain W. Farrell, W. David Nes, Elynor Moore, Geraldine A. Wright, Dudley I. Farman, Philip C. Stevenson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Phytosterols are primary plant metabolites that have fundamental structural and regulatory functions. They are also essential nutrients for phytophagous insects, including pollinators, that cannot synthesize sterols. Despite the well-described composition and diversity in vegetative plant tissues, few studies have examined phytosterol diversity in pollen. We quantified 25 pollen phytosterols in 122 plant species (105 genera, 51 families) to determine their composition and diversity across plant taxa. We searched literature and databases for plant phylogeny, environmental conditions, and pollinator guilds of the species to examine the relationships with pollen sterols. 24-methylenecholesterol, sitosterol and isofucosterol were the most common and abundant pollen sterols. We found phylogenetic clustering of twelve individual sterols, total sterol content and sterol diversity, and of sterol groupings that reflect their underlying biosynthesis pathway (C-24 alkylation, ring B desaturation). Plants originating in tropical-like climates (higher mean annual temperature, lower temperature seasonality, higher precipitation in wettest quarter) were more likely to record higher pollen sterol content. However, pollen sterol composition and content showed no clear relationship with pollinator guilds. Our study is the first to show that pollen sterol diversity is phylogenetically clustered and that pollen sterol content may adapt to environmental conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1169-1184
Number of pages16
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number3
Early online date15 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2021


  • chemical ecology
  • chemotaxonomy
  • environmental factors
  • phylogeny
  • phytosterol diversity
  • plant–insect interactions
  • pollen nutrients
  • pollinator guild
  • UKRI
  • BB/M011224/1
  • BB/P005276/1
  • BB/P007449/1
  • BB/S004653/1

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