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The Wonderful World of Diatoms

Updated on October 13, 2014
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What are Diatoms?

Diatoms are tiny, usually single-celled organisms that live in water.

Diatoms are very important to our world and most people don't even know they exist.

There are saltwater and freshwater varieties of diatoms, but all are extremely beautiful and interesting.

Lots of Different Diatoms

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Diatom Shells

Living in a House of Glass

Diatoms form shells or walls, called frustules, around themselves out of silica, so it's almost like their frustules are made of glass or quartz.

These frustules can be extremely ornate and have many spikes and designs, if the diatoms weren't so tiny, they would probably be killed off by all the people wanting to hang them on their walls.

The shells really are works of art.

Close-up of Marine Diatom Arachnoidiscus sp.

Silica frustule of the marine diatom Arachnoidiscus sp., confocal surface topography with ZEISS LSM 700
Silica frustule of the marine diatom Arachnoidiscus sp., confocal surface topography with ZEISS LSM 700 | Source

Diatoms: Life in Glass Houses

Diatoms: Life in Glass Houses
Diatoms: Life in Glass Houses

Learn more about diatoms in this great book.

 

Fossil Diatom

Fossil Diatom - 400x zoom. From New Zealand, Forresters Hill Rock: Sediment Age: about 32-35 million years (late Eocene - early Oligocene). Preparation: Anne Gleich. Stacked from 36 microphotos, each one with a slightly different focal distance.
Fossil Diatom - 400x zoom. From New Zealand, Forresters Hill Rock: Sediment Age: about 32-35 million years (late Eocene - early Oligocene). Preparation: Anne Gleich. Stacked from 36 microphotos, each one with a slightly different focal distance. | Source

Diatomea Poster

The Importance of Diatoms

Although these tiny organisms may seem beautiful but useless at first glance, they are an incredibly important part of the world's ecosystem.

Diatoms photosynthesize and produce much of the world's oxygen.

A lot of our fossil fuels have also come from diatom deposits.

Quick Fact

Diatoms live in both salt and freshwater, and some can even live in damp places

Intertidal Algae with Diatoms

Algae picture by robanhk
Algae picture by robanhk

Two Diatoms and an Oscillatoria

The video below is of a marine sample showing a couple of oval or plumb-bob shaped diatoms, a long Oscillatoria green, with several small flagellates flitting around.

Quick Fact

Diatoms are the principal constituent of plankton

Gyrosigma Diatom by robanhk
Gyrosigma Diatom by robanhk

Diatoms and Oxygen

Diatoms make their own food through photosynthesis. These tiny organisms also manage to produce a lot of oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesizing.

Numbers vary, but many people believe that diatoms account for 20-33 percent of the oxygen produced in the world today. That's more than the rainforests.

Ocean health is extremely important, not just for our joy in it, but also to keep breathing.

Sea foam
Sea foam | Source

Foam on the Waves

Have you ever gone to the beach and seen wave foam that looked dirty?

Often the yellow foam you sometimes see on waves is not from some oil spill or pollution, it's actually caused by diatoms getting broken open.

Since each diatom has a tiny drop of oil inside it, when they get broken apart by a storm, that oil comes out and floats on top of the waves.

A Bunch of Diatoms

Picture of Diatoms by jpdodd
Picture of Diatoms by jpdodd

Diatoms and Global Warming

Diatoms sequester excess carbon by using it in their shells and then dying and falling to the ocean floor, where they then may fossilize and become rock.

It's thought they may be key to slowing or reversing global warming due to the way they capture carbon.

Many scientists are pondering the idea of seeding the seas with iron, which is difficult to come by in the ocean and needed for diatom reproduction. This may increase the numbers of diatoms and they could then sequester even more carbon dioxide.

This idea has its doubters. Since we don't know nearly enough about our oceans as we'd like, it is possible that seeding the oceans wouldn't work or would cause unexpected problems.

Water Sample

Diatom Cloud by robanhk
Diatom Cloud by robanhk

Quick Fact

Diatoms are really useful in carbon dating sag ponds, which are ponds created when faults move.

Diatom Sludge

Diatom Sludge Picture by jpdodd
Diatom Sludge Picture by jpdodd

A Pile of Fossilized Diatoms

A Pile of Diatomaceous Earth full of sequestered carbon
A Pile of Diatomaceous Earth full of sequestered carbon | Source

Diatoms

Amphora maria diatom from the Miocene. Scale bar = 10 µm
Amphora maria diatom from the Miocene. Scale bar = 10 µm | Source
Gomphocymbella meulleri diatom from Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania, Africa.
Gomphocymbella meulleri diatom from Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania, Africa. | Source

Diatoms and Butterfly Scales Picture

Quick Fact

A marine variety of diatom called Coscinodiscus, is just barely visible without a microscope

Pennate Diatom

Pennate Diatom in Valve View
Pennate Diatom in Valve View | Source

Diatom Varieties

There are two main types of diatoms.

There are centric diatoms which are symmetrical radially. In other words, if you cut a centric diatom in wedges, they will match.

Then there are also pennate diatoms. They are symmetrical bilaterally. If you cut a pennate diatom in half, each half will match.

There may possibly be another division of diatoms soon, though it is debated. Some of the pennate diatoms have a certain groove and other don't, so some people they should be divided into their own groups.

Centric Diatom

Actinoptychus kernensis diatom from the Miocene. Scale bar = 10 µm
Actinoptychus kernensis diatom from the Miocene. Scale bar = 10 µm | Source

Get a Cool Diatom Coffee Mug

CafePress - Diatom Mug - Unique Coffee Mug, Coffee Cup
CafePress - Diatom Mug - Unique Coffee Mug, Coffee Cup

Diatom image comes from a book illustration by Haeckel in the 1800s.

 
Source

Diatom Structures

Diatoms are usually exist either solitarily or in colonies.

The colonies are diatoms connected by various materials including mucilage threads, chitin, or siliceous goo.

The diatom colonies can connect into long threads.

Filamentous Diatoms may be Melosira sp.

Photograph of diatoms by robanhk
Photograph of diatoms by robanhk

Unnoticed Living Jewels in Water

Diatoms: Unnoticed Living Jewels in Water
Diatoms: Unnoticed Living Jewels in Water

This small book is the perfect one to teach your kids more about these amazing and beautiful organisms.

 

Get an Educational Microscope Slide Set

Get a wonderful microscope slide set to learn more about diatoms and other water organisms.

Entitled "The World in a Drop of Water", this set comes packaged in a nice wooden box and features individual descriptions of each of the samples within.

The 10 slides in the set are:

  1. Diatoms, many different forms
  2. Euglena, green flagellate
  3. Paramecium ciliates from hay-infusion
  4. Daphnia, water flea
  5. Cyclops, a copepod whole mount
  6. Desmids, mixed (desmidiaceae)
  7. Mixed plakton from fresh water
  8. Hydra transversal section of the body
  9. Planaria transversal section of body of a flatworm
  10. Bacteria from putrid water

Naviculoid Diatoms

Pennate diatom in valve view
Pennate diatom in valve view | Source

Arranging Diatoms

Some people use the natural beauty of the diatoms to create an even more beautiful image.

They view the diatoms through a microscope and very carefully move them into ornate designs and patterns.

It is an amazing art form that takes a lot of patience. There are still some of these incredible pictures from the 1800s.

Arranged Diatoms

Arranged Diatoms on Microscope Slides in the California Academy of Sciences Diatom Collection. The slide label reads "Prize Medal Paris 1867 Diatomaceae."
Arranged Diatoms on Microscope Slides in the California Academy of Sciences Diatom Collection. The slide label reads "Prize Medal Paris 1867 Diatomaceae." | Source
Arranged Diatoms on Microscope Slides in the California Academy of Sciences Diatom Collection. Photograph of 42 diatom species from Oamaru, New Zealand, arranged on a microscope slide in September 1947 by R.I. Firth.
Arranged Diatoms on Microscope Slides in the California Academy of Sciences Diatom Collection. Photograph of 42 diatom species from Oamaru, New Zealand, arranged on a microscope slide in September 1947 by R.I. Firth. | Source
Arranged Diatoms on Microscope Slides in the California Academy of Sciences Diatom Collection. Photograph of diatoms arranged on a microscope slide by W.M. Grant.
Arranged Diatoms on Microscope Slides in the California Academy of Sciences Diatom Collection. Photograph of diatoms arranged on a microscope slide by W.M. Grant. | Source

Learn About Microscopy As A Hobby

Microscopes and the miniature, hidden world are so interesting, but it can be hard to know what types of microscopes to buy, how to work them, and all the other stuff. You can even learn to take photos and video of the microscopic world.

Microscopy As A Hobby. A 21st Century Quick Start Guide
Microscopy As A Hobby. A 21st Century Quick Start Guide

This great book will help you learn all the basics, including how to take pictures and videos of the diatoms and other microscopic creatures your new skill will reveal.

 

Diatoms, Diatomite, or Diatomaceous Earth?

Diatoms are the organisms. When they die, their shells can fossilize and turn into rock, called diatomite. If that diatomite is ground up it is called diatomaceous earth.

Diatomite Rocks

Diatomite
Diatomite | Source

Diatoms Have a Role in the Rock Cycle

Silicon is one of the most common elements on Earth, so many rocks, including granite and obsidian, have a high percentage of their makeup being silicon. When the rocks weather and erode, little pieces of them get into the water cycle, where they eventually wind up in the ocean. As they dissolve they produce silicic acid which the diatoms then use to build their cell walls.

The diatoms live for a while and then when they die, their frustules fall to the bottom of the ocean, where they pile up over time and create "diatomaceous ooze". Eventually, as more and more shells build up, the pressure on the ooze presses it into a rock called diatomite.

The rock can stay down there for millions of years, but eventually it may be pulled deep under a continent by plate tectonics, where it will melt and rise up through the continental plate and eventually cool into granite. Over millions of years, the granite weathers down and makes it to the ocean and then the silicon is taken in by the diatoms to make shells and then, well, you get the point. This is one example, but similar things are happening all over the world all the time.

Diatomite Mine

Diatomite Mine
Diatomite Mine | Source

Diatomite and Diatomaceous Earth

The rock diatomite is mined at many places around the world because diatomaceous earth is important for many different uses.

Diatomaceous earth is added to many products, including filters since it's one of the best filter mediums out there. People also ingest it as a way to kill internal parasites and make themselves and their pets healthy.

The most common use for diatomaceous earth may be the way you can use as a natural and safe bug killer. It so safe you can eat it, but it kills many of the bad pests that plague us, including bed bugs.

Two Types of Diatoms

Source

Diatomite Mining

The picture to the upper right is of a diatomite mine is northern California.

All the white material in the picture is the fossilized remains of diatoms that lived during the Pliocene and Pleistocene times.

So while sabre-tooth tigers and giant ground sloths were wandering around, these layers on top of layers of diatoms were living and dying then falling to the lake bed. Millions of years later, we can tap these deposits to make all sorts of things we need in daily life.

And all those diatoms that lived and died were primarily two kinds, the two kinds shown in the picture to the right.

Diatomaceous Earth - Food-Grade Powdered Diatoms

Centric Diatom

Centric Diatom by Derek Keats
Centric Diatom by Derek Keats

Pennate Diatoms

Pennate Diatoms by Derek Keats
Pennate Diatoms by Derek Keats

Pennate Diatom in Valve View

Pennate Diatom in Valve View by Derek Keats
Pennate Diatom in Valve View by Derek Keats

Nature's Art

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    • Xpeyur profile image

      Xpeyur 4 years ago

      Very nice stuff. Their 3D geometry is fantastic, and can teach us (humans) how to build other than endlessly boring boxlike structures.

    • profile image

      Miska29 5 years ago

      Nice lens!

    • LewesDE profile image

      LewesDE 5 years ago

      Love this lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I found this very interesting! I had never heard of these little critters before.

    • Rachel Field profile image

      Rachel Field 8 years ago

      5* and lensrolled to Cell Structure Textiles.

    • thesquirrelymom profile image

      thesquirrelymom 8 years ago

      I clicked on this thinking "What is a diatom? It sounds familiar." Then when I saw a picture, I remember where I heard of them recently. Watching an episode of Forensic Files. LOL. Great lens.

    • crystalguy profile image

      crystalguy 8 years ago

      Really liked your information and the pictures of the 'critters' and mines. It all makes you realize that rocks aren't just 'rocks' when you get to know them. Five Stars!

    • AlishaV profile image
      Author

      Alisha Vargas 8 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      Thanks Clora!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Love this lens. Everything Alisha does is great. Learning about the different minerals and the formations of land mass is such a massive undertaking that at my age I get to feeling like it would take a thousand lifetimes to even start to understand it let alone retain it in your mind.