Monday, October 04, 2004

Nanotechnologists talk to the 'plantimals'

Unmasking the molecular secrets of marine diatoms

Part animal, part plant, these tiny single-celled algae appear to ignore nature’s biological laws. In their gene mapping efforts, US and European scientists have uncovered an incredibly successful microorganism which could play an important role in climate control and even in the creation of new nanodevices.

    diatomEcologists are not the only ones interested in diatoms. They are also attracting the attention of nanotechnologists, who hope that these algae will teach them how to make minute silica structures – impossible to do using current materials and technology. The scientists also considered the evolutionary implications of this genomic work. Their research provides direct genetic confirmation of a theory that diatoms evolved when a heterotroph, a single-cell microbe, engulfed what scientists say was likely to have been a kind of red alga. The two became one organism and swapped some genetic material to create a new hybrid genome.

    According to the international team, the project shows the amazing diversity of life on our planet. Diatoms display features traditionally thought to be restricted to animals and other features thought to be restricted to plants, leading to perhaps a new class of what Bowler calls “plantimals”.

    From this US sequencing project and the related EU-funded project, much has been learned about how diatoms perceive their environment and survive in it. What’s more, once the details of silicon metabolism come out, the stage should then be set for nanotechnologists to harness diatom proteins for making nanodevices. Understanding the role of diatoms in global climate control and new products generated through nanotechnology are just two of the important spin-offs from this international project. More here
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