Scientist In Residence: Danny Richter on the To Humble Diatom

Dear Diatoms,

You are pretty, and I like you. Haeckel liked you too, so did Gaudi. Obviously, they appreciated the little things in life. While you still make appearances now and again in modern life, let’s face it: being microscopic and aquatic, recognition is an up-current battle, and you can’t swim.

Perhaps obscurity suits you? Trees, after all, are also beautiful, and we tend to cut them down. Perhaps your fame as a pool filterer is enough for you. Forgive me diatoms, but you can do better. You should do better.

Humans should know who to thank for producing 20% of their oxygen [Kroger and Poulsen, 2008]. Heck, without you and your heavy frustules to help bury carbon, there might never have been enough oxygen for placental mammals grow larger than shrews in the first place [Falkowski et al., 2005]! That’s right diatoms: no you, no us.

Being key to our past, you may also be key to our future. You see, we’re kind of sort of a little bit addicted to oil. Oil, as you know, comes from phytoplankton fat, and you are phytoplankton. Do your Bear Grylls-like survival skills in the face of toxicity (Brand et al., 1986), acidity (Warner, 1971), and unsurpassed ability for resource utilization (Boyd et al. 2007; Cullen 2006) make you the ultimate carbon-neutral source of oil? How will we know unless more people know enough about you to take an interest?

I like you diatoms, you are pretty. I have a lot to thank you for. You seem pretty happy with the fame you have, but I think it would help us out if you could try a little harder to get just a little bit more famous. Go on dancing with the stars, or Oprah. Something like that. Here, at least, is one person who would be very appreciative of your efforts.

Your admirer,

For more reading see…

Kroger, N. and Poulsen, N. 2008. Diatoms—From Cell Wall Biogenesis to Nanotechnology. Annu. Rev. Genet. 2008. 42:83–107

Falkowski, P. F. et al., 2005. The Rise of Oxygen over the Past 205 Million Years and the Evolution of Large Placental Mammals. Science 309, 2202

Brand, L. E., W. G. Sunda, and R. R. L. Guillard. 1986. Reduction of Marine-Phytoplankton Reproduction Rates by Copper and Cadmium. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 96: 225-250.

Boyd, P. W. and others 2007. Mesoscale iron enrichment experiments 1993-2005: Synthesis and future directions. Science 315: 612-617.

Cullen, J. T. 2006. On the nonlinear relationship between dissolved cadmium and phosphate in the modern global ocean: Could chronic iron limitation of phytoplankton growth cause the kink? Limnology and Oceanography 51: 1369-1380.

Warner, R. W. 1971. Distribution of Biota in a Stream Polluted by Acid Mine-Drainage. The Ohio Journal of Science 71(4): 202.