Microscopy images above show two model diatom species: Thalassiosira pseudonana (left) and Phaeodactylum tricornutum (right).

If you live in Boston, nanofactories of sophistication well beyond anything the human race has come up with are just a Charles River away. Diatoms (seen in the images above) are unicellular photosynthetic microalgae that can be found in freshwater and marine environments worldwide. These tiny creatures have plastids with 4 membranes (represented by the red color in the left image) and encase themselves in intricately patterned silica-based cell walls. That’s right, diatoms are made of the same stuff, silicon, as the microchips in your computer! Different diatom species’ (like those above) cell walls have different silica-based structures and it’s believed that the design of these structures is genetically controlled. A complete mechanistic understanding of how these peculiar eukaryotes make their cell walls could find applications in fields ranging from nanotechnology to biogeochemistry, but remains elusive.

Art contributed by Jernej Turnsek

Read more about the mysteries of diatoms:

*Intro to diatoms

*The Important Little Life of Dylan Diatom

*Small Things Considered – Hard Biology

*Diatoms: glass-dwelling dynamos

*Diatoms, or The Trouble with Life in Glass Houses

*Ice crystal formation in clouds stimulated by marine diatoms

*Engineers Envy Diatoms Glass-Sculpturing Prowess

*Nature’s Nanotechnologists: Unveiling the Secrets of Diatoms

*The mysteries of the diatoms

*More about T. pseudonana and P. tricornutum

*More about silicon and silicon dioxide

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