Will diatoms lead to faster computer chips?

Diatoms are unicellular algae and one of the most common types of phytoplankton. One of their main characteristics is they encase themselves in shells made of silica. According to a team of U.S. researchers who successfully decoded the genome of a particular diatom named Thalassiosira pseudonana, these very small algae could become the next big breakthrough in computer chips. They also could be used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reduce the effects of the global climate change occurring right now. Pretty amazing, but read more...

Diatoms are unicellular algae and one of the most common types of phytoplankton. One of their main characteristics is they encase themselves in shells made of silica. According to a team of U.S. researchers who successfully decoded the genome of a particular diatom named Thalassiosira pseudonana, these very small algae could become the next big breakthrough in computer chips. They also could be used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reduce the effects of the global climate change occurring right now. Pretty amazing, but read more...

The diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana

You can see above a picture of a diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana. "With a hard outer shell of silica shaped like a hatbox and marked with pores -- [it] is 3 to 4 microns in size, making it among the smallest diatoms." (Credit: University of Washington) Here is a link to a larger version.

This research has been partially done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by Virginia Armbrust, a diatom expert and an oceanography professor. She was helped by the people in her lab working on the Diatom Genomics and Transcriptomics research project and in particular by Thomas Mock, a postdoctoral researcher working at the University of Washington. This project also involves Michael Sussman, professor of biochemistry and director of UW Biotechnology Center and the members of his lab.

So what all these researchers have found? They've discovered a set of 75 genes specifically involved in silica bioprocessing which could lead to faster computer chips. "The new data will enable Sussman to start manipulating the genes responsible for silica production and potentially harness them to produce lines on computer chips. This could vastly increase chip speed, Sussman says, because diatoms are capable of producing lines much smaller than current technology allows. 'The semiconductor industry has been able to double the density of transistors on computer chips every few years. They've been doing that using photolithographic techniques for the past 30 years,' explains Sussman. 'But they are actually hitting a wall now because they’re getting down to the resolution of visible light.'"

Another news release from University of Washington provides other details about how diatoms remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. "Diatoms, most of which are far too tiny to see without magnification, are incredibly important in the global carbon cycle, says Thomas Mock. During photosynthesis, diatoms turn carbon dioxide into organic carbon and, in the process, generate oxygen. They are responsible for 40 percent of the organic carbon produced in the world’s oceans each year."

And how this genomic research could be able to improve life on Earth? "Considering that 30 percent of the world's oceans are iron-poor, some scientists have suggested fertilizing such areas with iron so diatoms become more numerous and absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus putting the brakes on global warming. If, however, adding iron causes diatoms to change the thickness of their shells then perhaps they won’t be as likely to sink and instead would remain in the upper ocean where the carbon they contain might be released back to the atmosphere as they decay or are eaten."

This research work has been published in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title "Whole-genome expression profiling of the marine diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana identifies genes involved in silicon bioprocesses (January 22, 2008). Here is a link to the abstract. But don't forget that this research paper is also based on the effort to sequence the genome of Thalassiosira pseudonana, which was completed in 2004 and published by Science under the name "The Genome of the Diatom Thalassiosira Pseudonana: Ecology, Evolution, and Metabolism" (Volume 306, Number 5693, Pages 79-86, October 2004). Here is a link to the abstract.

But for more information, please read the news releases of the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison and of Washington. They're easier to understand.

Sources: University of Wisconsin-Madison, January 22, 2008; University of Washington, January 22, 2008; and various websites

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