Diatoms are eukaryotic, or unicellular
algae. One feature that sets them apart from typical phytoplankton is
their custom-built cell walls which they create from silicon dioxide,
or silica. Sussman's interest lies in that diatoms are capable of
creating lines of silica much smaller than present chip manufacturing
processes can make out of silicon.
The particular diatom Sussman and
Armbrust's group have been working with is known as Thalassiosira
pseudonana. Armbrust previously led the effort to sequence T.
pseudonana's genome in 2004. The group has identified 75 genes that
are used in the silica bioprocess for the diatoms and they hope to
use genetic manipulation to find out what they can do with the
microscopic organism in the guise of a chip builder.
Not just an organism sitting on the
verge of a possible breakthrough in chip manufacturing, diatoms are
responsible for a large part of the Earth's carbon cycle. Diatoms,
which dwell in water and damp soil, are estimated to soak around 20%
of the total carbon dioxide removed from air yearly -- a number very
close to what all of Earth's rainforests together are figured for.