Sunday, October 11, 2009

Diatoms: Small and Mighty Carbon-Eaters

For the inaugural post to this blog, let’s be inspired by a little-known but ultra-important creature: the diatom (dye-ah-tom). My appreciation for diatoms began during a foray into marine science during college. The career didn’t stick, but my appreciation for bizarre and beautiful sea creatures did.

Diatoms are single-celled algae that live in oceans, lakes and other water bodies. These guys demonstrate that microscopic organisms can be very strange and also gorgeous and important. Their claim to beauty is their intricate shells, which they make from silicon. Every species has its own type. Their ornate shells suggest UFOs, seashells, British candies...

On top of being lovely and weird, these little water-dwellers play vital roles in our world. Humans harvest diatom-rich sediments and process them into diatomaceous earth for uses ranging from wine filtration to garden pest prevention.

But even more amazing is the diatom’s role as an air purifier. Like plants, diatoms perform photosynthesis: they take in carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight and release oxygen. In the process, diatoms produce a significant amount of the world’s oxygen supply—some say as much as 35%. And during photosynthesis, diatoms remove carbon dioxide from the air, reducing our most abundant greenhouse gas. More on this point from Deborah Franklin, writing for Smithsonian magazine:
"These miniscule creatures, long regarded primarily as the bottom link of the marine food chain, capture nearly as much of the gas as all the trees, grasses and other land plants combined, majestic redwoods included."
So here’s to the earth and its brilliant systems: the ingredients for balance and change are already built in. They are microscopic, intricate, and stunning.

Photo credits:
1) Black-and-white collage
2) Photograph by Jan Parmentier

Other diatom resources:

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