Diatoms- The Lungs Of The Planet
Close your eyes and take a breath. Now take another one. Would it surprise you to know the second breath you took was provided to you entirely by teeny, tiny microscopic plants which live in the sea? It’s true. The oxygen that our entire planet depends on is largely generated, not by rainforests and other densely vegetated areas on land, but by marine algae called diatoms.
Credit: via Giphy
Diatoms have been around since the Jurassic era and can be found in large numbers in most bodies of water around the world. And I do mean large numbers. How large? Well, if you were to grab your kid’s plastic sandcastle bucket and fill it with sea water, there would be over a million diatoms in that little quart-sized pail. In fact, diatom numbers are so large that the only way you can truly understand the magnitude of them is by seeing them from space.
Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr
The image above is a phytoplankton bloom in the Barents Sea taken by NASA in 2010. The swirling greens you see are none other than diatoms. Remember, these are microscopic plants! Think about how many would have to be present in this photo in order to see them from space!
Aside from being the largest primary producers of oxygen on our planet, diatoms also help filter the air we breathe by removing the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from our atmosphere. How do they do this? Through photosynthesis. During photosynthesis, plants (like diatoms) use the energy from sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into food. The byproducts that are produced from this process are organic carbon and oxygen. Carbon fixation, or turning inorganic carbon (like carbon dioxide) into organic compounds, is the best filtration system we have for cleaning our air. It is estimated that diatoms are responsible for, roughly, 25 percent of the earth’s carbon fixation. If you were to take all the earth’s tropical rainforests and combine their carbon filtration efforts, you might get a percentage close to this. Maybe.
Credit: via Giphy
So, now you know you have diatoms to thank, not only for the oxygen you inhale but also for keeping our air clean and poison free. There are many other amazing things diatoms do for us. Scientists are looking at ways these microscopic algae can reduce global warming, revolutionize nanotechnology, and even help forensic scientists better understand drownings.