Diatoms are not only beautiful. These tiny living gems also help produce the oxygen we breathe.

Text: Pontus Dahlman     Photo: Shutterstock    

Diatoms are the microscopic world’s abstract artworks. Appearing in an infinite number of different geometrical shapes, diatoms are a type of algae found throughout the world’s oceans and rivers. Capable of attaching to different surfaces such as stone and sand, each diatom is more spectacularly shaped and versatile than the last.

These single-celled organisms come in thousands of subtly different species, all of which are contained in a shell made of glittering silicon. These shells are usually diametrically symmetrical, a biological fact from which diatoms derive their name.

But aesthetic beauty isn’t the main reason we should appreciate diatoms. These creatures greatly contribute to the amount of oxygen in our atmosphere, about half of which comes from the oceans. Diatoms may be ­natural works of art but they also play an essential role in creating the air we breathe.

As Swedish algae researcher Angela Wulff said in her introductory address as professor of marine ecology at the ­University of Gothenburg, “Consider that the oxygen in every fourth breath you take comes from diatoms.”

Wulff is one of the world’s experts in the field and she thinks that diatoms should be called the “jewels of the sea”. We agree that it’s a great nickname.