Diatoms, Algae and the Environment: a tidbit

I first started working with algae in 1999, during my undergraduate work at Oklahoma State University. My advisor, Bill Henley was working on a project at the Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge to collect and identify the extremophile algae that lived there. In my years working there I became familiar with many of the algae taxa that inhabit inland saline habitats, especially the diatoms. Studying the diatom assemblages of the Salt Plains turned into my Masters Thesis and an enduring interest in diatoms. 


A diatom of the genus  Navicula  collected in Peru. 

A diatom of the genus Navicula collected in Peru. 

Diatoms are of great global importance. To start with, diatoms are responsible for between 20-40% of the earths oxygen production. This fact alone should make you want to hug a diatom. However, this huge contribution to global oxygen supplies is just a byproduct (even considered to be a waste product) of photosynthesis. The primary objective of any diatom is to fix carbon dioxide into energy and biomass. The resulting biomass happens to be tasty and nutritious to many organisms, and is therefore the base of many aquatic food chains, especially in marine systems. So, much of that tasty seafood we love, was once an unpretentious diatom. 

Anyone can quite quickly grasp the difference between having potatoes and not having potatoes. It is somewhat more difficult to establish the consequences of, for example Cyclotella americana Fricke being extirpated from Lake Erie.
— Stoermer and Smol, The Diatoms: Applications for the Environmental and Earth Sciences

Sometimes the high productivity of diatoms can get out of hand, especially in response to nutrient pollution into aquatic habitats. As this story reports, we are seeing an unprecedented bloom of the toxin producing diatom, Pseudo-Nitzschia all along the Pacific coast. 

Our understanding of nature and the environment is incomplete, as stated by Stoermer and Smol in the above quote about potatoes and Cyclotella. And, the limited application of the knowledge we do have may be keeping us from making breakthroughs in areas of environmental remediation and environmental industrialism.