Diverse and conserved nano- and mesoscale structures of diatom silica revealed by atomic force microscopy


Mark Hildebrand. Tel: 1 (858) 822-0167; fax: 1 (858) 534-7313; e-mail:


An outstanding example of biological pattern formation at the single cell level is the diversity of biomineral structures in the silica cell walls of the unicellular eukaryotic algae known as diatoms. We present a survey of cell wall silica structures of 16 diatom species, which included all major cell wall components (valves, girdle bands and setae), imaged across the nano-, meso- and microscales using atomic force microscopy. Because of atomic force microscopy's superior ability to image surface topology, this approach enabled visualization of the organization of possible underlying organic molecules involved in mineral structure formation. Diatom nanoscale silica structure varied greatly comparing the same feature in different species and different features within a single species, and frequently on different faces of the same object. These data indicate that there is not a strict relation between nanoscale silica morphology and the type of structure that contains it. On the mesoscale, there was a preponderance of linear structures regardless of the object imaged, suggesting that assembly or organization of linear organic molecules or subcellular assemblies that confine a linear space play an essential and conserved role in structure formation on that scale. Microscale structure imparted an overall influence over nano- and mesoscale structure, indicating that shaping of the silica deposition vesicle plays a key role in structure formation. These results provide insights into the design and assembly principles involved in diatom silica structure formation, facilitating an understanding of the native system and potentially aiding in development of biomimetic approaches.