Diatoms are photosynthetic plankton (microscopic algae) ubiquitous in oceans and freshwater systems. They are a major source of nutrients for marine organisms as well as a major producer of oxygen. They have been dubbed the “lungs of the ocean,” producing about 20 % of the oxygen we breathe–as much as all the rainforests combined.
Their ornately-patterned silica cell walls are a source of inspiration for nanotechnologists, who dream of replicating similar structures for the semi-conductor industry. But despite their beauty, usefulness, and environmental importance, their basic biology is still poorly understood. In a recent paper, Chris Bowler and his colleagues from the Paris-based Diatom Morphogenesis Laboratory, show how diatoms may communicate with each other via aldehyde compounds released by wounded cells. .
Diatoms are used by scientists to determine if a waterway is contaminated. Different species of diatoms can thrive or die depending on the quality of the waterway’s condition. Scientists also study diatoms when researching potential remediation techniques and for climate change studies. Their hydrated silicon dioxide cell walls give them a unique, sculptural quality and longevity. Fossilized diatomaceous earth, for instance, can provide insight into prehistoric environmental conditions for climate change researchers .