The Algal World: More Diatoms

kelly

Round Loch of Glenhead, watercolor by Martyn Kelly.

I have a bit more to add on diatoms; there just wasn’t enough space in my last post. I have already mentioned diatomaceous earth, composed of the remains of ancient diatoms. It is used for polishing because of the abrasiveness of the glassy shells made primarily of silica. The tiny, hollow shells have a great deal of surface area making them effective filtering agents as well. The earth can also be employed as an insecticide because the abrasiveness damages the waxy covering on many insects. Perhaps the greatest impact of diatoms on our life style today is that their internal remains are a major component of fuel oil, which was created from deposits of many kinds of plant material including the aquatic variety. In fact, the diatom contribution was so significant that some researchers today are considering diatoms as a form of future biofuel, in part because, among phytoplankton, a higher proportion of their fatty acids are monounsaturated making them a better starting material for biofuel.

One of the best and most engaging ways to learn more about diatoms and about how they are used to evaluate aquatic environments is to read the posts on Martyn Kelly’s Of Microscopes and Monsters blog. Kelly heads a consultancy firm in Britain that specializes in studying freshwater ecosystems, and diatoms are key to this research. He is an expert in the field but he writes very appealingly for nonspecialists. He has even produced a book on the subject that is available for a free download from his website. He describes what a diatom population tells about water quality, and how this changes with season and location. Kelly has been doing this work long enough that he can also discuss how things have changed—for better or worse—over time. He travels widely on business so there are posts on his experiences studying diatoms and other phytoplankton in many locations; there have been recent posts from India.

I should note that Kelly can definitely be opinionated in his posts, which is not a bad thing. He provides a sense of the political and economic issues surrounding diatoms—they are not only about beauty. As an independent consultant, he is a little freer to speak his mind, and as a Briton facing exit from the European Union, he has some interesting things to say that what this might or might not mean for environmental regulations in the United Kingdom. Kelly also looks at the local level, at such issues as how a new housing development is likely to affect nearby lakes and streams and what can be done to mitigate the changes. So there are many reasons why his writing is worth checking out.

What makes Kelly’s website particularly interesting is that he is also an artist, who returned to school to take up art seriously. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he chose to focus on diatoms, because as I said in my first post on algae, they are particularly appealing aesthetically, and this is especially true of diatoms. In his effort to communicate about aquatic environments, Kelly sometimes includes his watercolors in posts. They are beautiful and portray the atmosphere of an underwater world. He includes not only diatoms but other planktonic organisms that would be associated with them in a particular body of water. Some of these works are also included in his book. I think it’s particularly powerful when a biologist is also an artist, because they bring knowledge and years of observation to their art. Kelly presents diatoms in a very different way than does Haeckel, whose portrayals are greatly enlarged, with all the structural details laid out for the viewer as static, structural monuments. Kelly’s diatoms, on the other hand, do not have as many details, but they are shown as immersed in their environment rather than separate from it, and there is a sense of movement. I see these two approaches as complementary and definitely worth studying. We are very fortunate that both are freely available on the web.

Kelly has written on other algal art available on the web, including Andrew McKeown’s cast-iron sculptures of diatoms at East Shore Village on the Durham coast in Britain. They are in a park with a view of the ocean and are tangible expressions of these tiny creatures, something a child could play on and experience in a very different way than they could the real thing. At the other end of the size spectrum, there is a genre, if you can call it that, of arranging diatoms into patterns on microscope slides, a form of tiny art. This has been going on since the 19th century, but still persists today. One major exponent was Carl Strüwe, a German photographer with an expertise in photomicroscopy. He created stunning images, many of diatoms artfully arranged; there was an exhibit of his work held last year called Microcosmos. He was not alone; there was a small group of devotees of this art in the Victorian era, mirroring the broad interest in both microscopy and aquatic organisms. Nor is the practice dead. Klaus Kemp is a British microscopist who creates complex symmetrical arrangements of diatoms. There is a fascinating video of his work and how he creates them. Some people might consider this scientific kitsch, but I see is as one more way to lure nonscientists into the world of science through wonder. They may be initially attracted by the symmetry, become more interested when they learn that the pattern is created under a microscope, and are then hooked by the intricacy and beauty of each tiny element: how can creatures so small be so complex?

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