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The Buzz on Pollen

By Molly Kulpa '15

Marketing Specialist, Texas A&M Foundation
Subject: Dr. Vaughn Bryant, Palynologist and Professor, Department of Anthropology Director, Texas A&M Palynology Laboratory.
Education: B.A. Geography (1964), M.A. Anthropology (1966), Ph.D. Botany (1969), The University of Texas at Austin.
Research Interests: Palynology, archaeology and anthropology, especially regarding prehistoric diets and forensics.
 

What is palynology?

Palynology is the study of pollen grains and spores found in honey and archaeological or geological deposits. There are more than 350,000 plants worldwide that bees utilize, and each plant species produces a unique pollen grain. Pollen is mostly invisible to the naked eye, but when studied under a microscope, it can reveal a multitude of information.

can forensic palynology solve crimes?

Since pollen can survive harsh conditions, it can reveal important clues as evidence. In 2006, I was contacted by a medical examiner in Rochester, New York, to work on an unsolved murder case from 1979. Investigators shipped the victim’s clothing to me, which I analyzed for pollen grains. I determined that the young girl was not from New York, but must have come from southern Florida or around San Diego, California, based on pollen grains found in her clothing's pocket lint that had survived, even after all those years. In 2015, she was identified as being from southern Florida.

How do you analyze pollen grains?

We use a special vacuum to gather pollen from the sample while wearing a full-body forensic suit to avoid contamination. Then we place the vacuumed filter in a test tube and treat it with a series of acids that destroy everything but the pollen. The result is a vial containing the pollen grains, which are microscopically studied, identified and then matched to the plants from which they originated.
 

What is your most memorable case?

After 9/11, the CIA asked me to analyze samples to help track down terrorists using forensic pollen techniques. They sent me random objects but never said where they came from or the item’s significance.

One time, they sent a 36-inch shoelace taken from a terrorist’s boot, which I traced back to Iran through pollen analysis. Another item was a prayer blanket, which we determined had been used in South Pakistan. I even studied captured weapons, cell phones, IEDs and car air filters to see where they’d been. I examined hundreds of samples and traveled to Langley, Virginia, twice per year. I did this for 10 years, unaware I was searching for Osama bin Laden, until Navy SEALs captured and killed him in 2011.

IS your Work used in the War On drugs?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reached out to me in 2011 when it heard that pollen analysis could trace the origins of illegal drugs entering the U.S., such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. One time, I processed several kilos of cocaine with a street value of about $3 million. From pollen analyses, I can often determine where illegal drugs originated—such as states like Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua or Coahuila, Mexico.  

Truth in Honey Labeling 

Bryant started analyzing honey in 1975 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture hired him to track illegal honey being purchased as part of its Farm Loan Subsidy Program. By analyzing samples, he helped identify domestic versus foreign honey.

He has spoken at universities and beekeeping meetings and published several articles about authentic honey. Currently, Bryant studies honey products for private companies to verify their authenticity and helps hundreds of beekeepers find out what types of honey their bees produce.

In 1971, Bryant joined Texas A&M’s newly-created Department of Sociology and Anthropology. He was the first anthropologist in the College of Liberal Arts and served as anthropology department head until 1999. He currently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in anthropology. Recently, Bryant made headlines for continuing his teaching and research activiites while undergoing treatment for leukemia at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Palynology took off in the 1940s and 1950s when the oil and gas industry realized that by studying pollen and spores present in sediments and rock layers, oil deposits can be identified.

In the 1960s, Bryant pioneered research in the emerging field of prehistoric diet and nutrition by analyzing ancient human feces, known as coprolites. The study of coprolites can reveal what foods our ancestors ate and even if they were infected with parasites.

Bryant has discussed his research on TV programs including the Today Show, CNN and Fox News. He’s also written more than 150 scholarly articles and co-authored several books. His research has been featured in magazines such as People, Reader’s Digest, Popular Science, Seventeen, Forbes and National Geographic

A common misconception is that people can become less sensitive to seasonal allergies by ingesting local honey containing pollen. Sadly, said Bryant, multiple scientific reports have disproved the theory.

Contact:

Larry Walker '97

Senior Director of Development
College of Liberal Arts