Living inside a glass box--silica in diatoms.
Living Inside a Glass Box – Silica in Diatoms
Biologisches Institut, Abteilung Zoologie, Universität Stuttgart, Pfaffenwaldring 57, 70569
Progress in Molecular and Subcellular Biology,Vol. 33
W. E. G. Müller (Ed.)
© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2003
Silicon (Si; name originates from the Latin,silicis = flint) is present in all living
organisms and is required for the production of stable structural materials.
This takes place not only in single-celled organisms, e.g. diatoms, but also in
lower Metazoa like sponges as well as in higher plants. Silicon is one of the
most abundant elements in the earth’s crust,second only to oxygen.Some geol-
ogists estimate that nearly 90% of all known minerals are silicates in combi-
nation with other elements such as aluminium (andalusite, kyanite), calcium
(wollastonite),iron (fayalite),magnesium (fosterite),zinc (willemite) or zirco-
nium (zircon), just to mention a few.
Silica, or more precisely hydrated silica, often referred to as opal, is the
second most abundant mineral type formed by organisms. Only carbonate
minerals are distributed in a wider range and are more abundant.
The basic chemical unit of silicates is the (SiO4) tetrahedron-shaped anio-
nic group. The overall charge condition leaves the oxygens with the option of
bonding to another silicon ion and therefore linking one (SiO4) tetrahedron to
another and another, and so on. Regrading the numbers of tetrahedrons and
the different shapes results in the silicates being divided into subclasses, not
by their chemistries, but by their structures, e.g. nesosilicates (single tetrahe-
drons), sorosilicates (double tetrahedrons), inosilicates (single and double
chains) or cyclosilicates (rings).
The soluble form of silica is a monomer,orthosilicic acid,which is a silicon
atom also tetrahedrally coordinated to four hydroxyl groups with the formula
Si(OH)4. Only this soluble form is biologically assimilable.
Several groups of marine organisms as well as their representatives in fresh-
water habitats such as diatoms,“radiolarians”, choanoflagellates, sponges and
higher plants take up Si(OH)4from water to build their opal – amorphous
hydrated silica – skeletons.
Silica in Protozoa,Sponges and Higher Plants
In the artificial grouping of radiolarians (Radiolaria), the Phaeodaria are
oceanic protists encased with porous skeletons composed of biogenic opal with
organic substances and traces of Mg, Ca and Cu (Lee et al. 2000). They have
been observed near the water surface of the oceans down to greater depths of
up to several thousands of meters.From a quantitative viewpoint,they are only
important in the Pacific equatorial belt.
The choanoflagellates are nowadays included within the protozoa as the order
Choanoflagellida (Lee et al.2000).They are a well-defined group of free-living,
colourless monads.They are uninucleated and small,seldom more than 10mm
in size. Their most distinctive feature is the uniform appearance of the proto-
plast with a single anterior flagellum. Choanoflagellates are ubiquitously
distributed in aquatic habitats. The 50 genera and more than 100 species are
included in 3 families, one with basket-like siliceous loricae (Acanthoecidae)
found only in marine or brackish water (for review see Leadbetter 1991).
The silicoflagellates (Silicoflagellata) are known in botanical literature as the
Dictyochophyceae inside the alga class of Heterokontophyta (van den Hoek
et al. 1995). The known 30 extant species form a clade that is most closely
related to diatoms.Silicoflagellates are small to medium-sized unicellular pro-
tists and are common in marine planktonic and benthic habitats. Silicoflagel-
lates sensu stricto form complex siliceous external skeletons (Lee et al. 2000),
for example, Dictyocha speculum. The skeleton takes the form of a flat basket
composed of hollow, but robust tubes of silica.
Among the protists, there are several other groups including species
forming tests of siliceous plates, e.g. testate amoebae, or showing siliceous
endoskeletal elements, for example, the heterotrophic flagellate Hermesium
adriaticum (Lee et al. 2000).
4 F. Brümmer
Two, the Demospongiae and the Hexactinellida, out of the three classes of
the phylum Porifera contain siliceous spicules. Demospongiae contains more
than 85% of all living sponges with about 6000 valid species already described;
Hexactinellida include about 500 described species,7% of all Porifera (Hooper
and van Soest 2002).The specific spicule characteristics are used for taxonomic
purposes.From one to eight types of spicules may be present within one single
sponge species. The spicules stand for two major functions: they provide
mechanical support to the soft part of the sponges and second, the presence
of hard spicules also provides some kind of defence mechanism discourag-
ing predators from eating sponges. The spicules are built by specialised cell
types, the sclerocytes (for review see Simpson 1984). Up to now, the how and
where the secretion of spicules take place – intra- or extracellularly– have
been intensively discussed (Garrone et al.1981; Simpson 1984; Uriz et al.2000;
Siliceous sponges proliferated well on the shelves of the Jurassic Thethys
Sea, building up huge sponge reefs (Leinfelder 1993; Leinfelder et al. 1994).
Within higher plants, the Cyperaceae (e.g. horsetails, Arthrophyta) and
Gramineae (grasses) contain up to 10–15% silica, which can be found in the
cell walls, inside the cell lumen as well as extracellularly on the outer cuticle.
The opaline silica deposits are most commonly in the form of particles called
phytoliths (Perry and Keeling-Tucker 2000).
In higher animals,the role of silica is not known; in human blood,however,
138mmol/l silicate (as SiO2) has been reported (Wissenschaftliche Tabellen
Living in a Glass Box – the Diatoms
The diatom lineage contains the most beautiful,delicate eukaryotic organisms
that are usually classified as algae (for reviews, see Round et al. 1990; van den
Hoek et al. 1995.
Diatoms are extremely abundant in both freshwater and marine ecosystems.
It is estimated that 20–25% of all organic carbon fixation on our “Blue Planet”
is carried out by diatoms made possible by the chlorophyll they contain.
Diatoms are thus a major food resource for all imaginable micro-organisms
and animal larvae and diatoms are a major source of atmospheric oxygen.
Living Inside a Glass Box – Silica in Diatoms5
The oldest certain fossil diatoms are Lower Cretaceous (about 120 million
years ago) in age. Most diatom fossils known are from Eocene and Miocene
rocks, 35 and 5 million years old, respectively. The richest sources of diatom
fossils are deposits of the skeleton known as diatomite or diatomaceous earth.
This mineral was formed as ancient diatoms died and sank to the bottom of
the oceans or lakes. Today, these large deposits of white chalky material are
even mined and processed in cleansers,paints,filtering systems and abrasives.
In addition, many toothpastes contain bits of fossil diatoms.
Within the Heterokontophyta, diatoms form the class Bacillariophyceae
(Diatomophyceae = the diatoms). They are subdivided into two main groups
(classes or orders) – the centrate diatoms (Centrobacillariophyceae; Centrales)
and the pennate diatoms (Pennatibacillariophyceae; Pennales). The former
are generally radially symmetrical, the latter show a typical bilateral symme-
try.There are over 250 genera containing around 100,000 living diatom species.
All species of diatoms are unicellular or colonial coccoid algae. The cells
secrete intricate skeletons of silica. The skeleton of a diatom, the frustule, is
made of very pure silica coated with a thin layer of organic material.The pres-
ence of silica in the cell walls means that these tiny organisms live in a “glass
house” or a “glass box”. The skeleton is divided into two parts, one of which
(the epitheca) is larger and older and overlaps the other (the hypotheca) like
the lid of a box.Therefore,a more accurate description is that they live in glass
Petri dishes (frustules).The top of the frustules,the epitheca,is perforated with
many holes, arranged in a pattern characteristic of the species. The holes
permit close contact with the environment and allow the diffusion of materi-
als into and out of the cell.
Fig.1. Pleursigma angulatum, an example for a pennate diatom. In the middle of the cell, the
raphe as well as the central nodule are visible
Diatoms reproduce through cell division – one cell divides into two cells.
First, the nucleus divides via mitosis and, second, two new valves are formed
within the cell wall. The parental epitheca and hypotheca separate and new
valves are laid down between them.The older valves fit over the newly formed
hypotheca. Thus, each new cell contains an old epitheca and a new hypotheca
resulting in a decrease in the mean size of a dividing population of diatoms.
They become smaller and smaller with time. The decrease in size of progeny
cells is called diminution and occurs until a certain size is reached.Fortunately,
diatoms can also reproduce sexually in order to regain maximum size.
Diatoms are, as already mentioned, part of the drifting community, the
plankton.With their rather heavy silica cell walls,planktonic diatoms are faced
with the problem of how to remain in the uppermost layers ensuring enough
light for photosynthesis. First, diatoms are well protected by their glass box
and, therefore, able to stay intact in the turbulent mixing of the upper layers.
Second, several diatoms can reduce their densities and become more buoyant
by excluding heavy ions from their cell sap, thereby reducing their density to
even less than the density of the surrounding sea water. Third, they can bear
long spines or other protrusions which slow down their sinking rate (“living
On the other hand, for benthic forms the heavy frustule guarantees their
remaining at the bottom, where nutrient concentrations are usually higher
than in the water column.Also,in this case,the lucent frustule does not block
photosynthesis and may serve for collecting and amplifying light.
Diatoms have also been recognised to produce toxins which infect shellfish
and also humans along the food chain. The poisoning is called amnesic shell-
fish poisoning (ASP) and was first recognised in 1987 in Canada (Bates et al.
1989). To date, reports of ASP are mainly from North America and Canada,
while only very low and insignificant concentrations have been detected in
other parts of the world (Hallegraeff 1995; Bates et al. 1998). The symptoms
include abdominal cramps, vomiting, disorientation and memory loss
(amnesia). Most unexpectedly, the causative toxin is produced by a diatom
(Pseudo-nitzschia spp.) and not by a dinoflagellate. The toxin responsible is
called domoic acid which is a naturally occurring compound belonging to the
kainoid class. For the mode of action, it is assumed that domoic acid is
absorbed in very low rates through the gastrointestinal mucosa and transferred
to the brain tissue, acting as a glutamate agonist in the brain and central
nervous system, where it strongly binds to a special type of glutamate recep-
tor (Wright and Quilliam 1995).
Biosilicification in Diatoms
The cell wall of diatoms consists of polymerised silicic acid, an amorphous
material without any crystalline structure. Each siliceous element, like the
valves or girdles,is formed within its own flattened vesicle,the so-called silica
Living Inside a Glass Box – Silica in Diatoms7