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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Diatoms of England

Zita has sent in this article written by her friend and former colleague Michael Stringer, who, in addition to his interest in ophthalmology, has a myriad of other interests like photography, geography, sport, and a serious interest in the subject of ‘Diatoms’.  She feels  (and I agree) that our viewers would  be interested to learn about this organism and also read more about it from the references given.

There are many topics that you are already familiar with, The Rose of England, The Queen of England, The Garden of England and even The Heart of England.  So, I hear you ask, what is / are The Diatoms of England?


The UK has been defined as a group of islands made of coal and surrounded by water.  There is a lot of water everywhere in England.  We even classify our bodies of water!  We have Bogs; The Fens; Marshes, Ramsars and so on.   There are little treasures, such as The Norfolk Broads,  The Lake District and the Somerset Levels.  You mustn't forget all the Coastline, Estuaries and mud flats, either.  My interest is the tiny island Two Tree Island, between Leigh on Sea and Canvey.
Water is very important in this little discussion we are going to have, because it is the home of The Diatom and they are not fussy what type of water it is.  Some are adapted to  Marine, Fresh, Brackish, damp soil, mosses, bogs, aquariums, puddles and even dripping taps as long there is access to the sky and sunshine.

Now, we will look at just what a fascinating and beautiful critter the diatom is.  OK, it is a tiny plant, but it is the only shelled plant. It has a shell made from silica – glass – and when photographed against a black background and suitable lighting, they are, truly, exquisite.  An humble Algae but when you have watched these simple cells dance; spin; glide; turn somersaults,  you would believe they are tiny critters.  One, I experimented with, moves at 5 metres a second – that is half the speed of Usain Bolt,   So, now, we have plants that can move and some are quite sprightly.  If we scale up their size to ours, we would have a tough job keeping up with them.  They are not Ents, or Triffids.  They give an estimated 45% of the oxygen we breath and sit at the bottom of the food chain.  They are prime providers and producers.

Check out Wiki on this link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatom for more technical bits.  While there, look at the photomicrograph of Marine Diatoms at this link ..           http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Diatom2.jpg .

This, I believe endorses my description that Diatoms are beautiful.  The shapes, intricate designs within these shapes and their colours, are stunning.  There are quite a few to collect and study; modern thought indicates there are about 150,000 named species Worldwide and about the same number again waiting to be named.  Locally, there are over a thousand species.

 Diatoms are a unique source of oil as well as all their other contributions and I have a friend in India, who have no natural reserves of this valuable commodity who is conducting experiments to breed Diatoms to extract their oil. The petrol you put into your car originates from Diatoms that they produced a few million years ago.

 Because my study is over a very small area, the richness of the colony is very large. I do not even have the time to do a serious study of the Freshwater species, nor the Brackish species that live in the numerous lagoons.  The richest site would be the Bird Reserve at the West of the island.  It is a Site of Special, Scientific Interest – a SOSSI …  I would love just a couple of netfulls of the mud from that site.  The guano from all the visiting birds would be incredibly rich in Diatoms, many of which have arrived from thousands of miles away.  I think this is why, in 2006, I discovered the rarest plant in Europe.  The Pallidum usually lives in the sea off Japan, although, in all honesty, I know of no birds that migrate from these distant shores to Essex.   It was still resident in October 2016.



Head to tail, X 6,  is 1 mm.   Not only do Diatoms bring fame, they can also bring a lot of prestige among fellow scientists.  In 2016, The European Microscopy Congress, held in France, chose one of my pictures to adorn all their literature, banners, advertising – even the Banquet menu, www.emc.fr .  It is a study that has also brought in a few pennies – 2008 I was fortunate to win the Nikon Small World competition.  This is the Oscars for photomicrographers.  With thousands of pictures from Universities, Institutes, Commercial, Professional and Amateurs a handful of Diatoms from Two Tree Island, took the prize. 

 Diatoms are fascinating to watch live as they dance and play but their colour shape and form when they are dead is truly stunning.  I have a dear friend who has the amazing skill of creating exquisite arrangements of these little jewels, by hand. Believe it, or not – one of the sharpest points in Nature is a Pig's Eyelash!  An eyelash is glued to a needle that is glued to a pen holder. Using this, he carefully picks up a diatom from one slide – swaps slides and carefully re-positions onto a suitable adhesive, in the desired place.  Once complete, the slide is finished off with a mountant and cover slip and he sells them for a lot of money!  Here are just a few he made for me with diatoms from Two Tree Island.  I will leave it to your Editor how many are printed!  Enjoy my passion for Nature's most exquisite little shelled jewels...




3 comments:

  1. Thank you Zita and Lucky for this fascinating article about diatoms. Although I knew about these, I did not know all the details.
    Sanath

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  2. When Zita sent this article for my opinion whether it would be suitable for our Blog, I had no hesitation recommending that she should send it to Lucky.(By the way, contributors please note that documents cannot be submitted in Apple Pages format and that any pictures included in the text must be separately attached in JPEG format. I converted Zita's article accordingly).

    Buried within this fascinating article is the author Michael Stringer's proud achievement which I applaud. ( In 2016, The European Microscopy Congress, held in France, chose one of my pictures to adorn all their literature, banners, advertising – even the Banquet menu, www.emc.fr . It is a study that has also brought in a few pennies – 2008 I was fortunate to win the Nikon Small World competition. This is the Oscars for photomicrographers. With thousands of pictures from Universities, Institutes, Commercial, Professional and Amateurs a handful of Diatoms from Two Tree Island, took the prize.).

    I read a lot about Diatoms but couldn't discover why they were named as such. Does anyone know? usually, Di means 2 and atom is, well atom!

    Thanks Zita

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  3. Sorry that my reply is rather late, Mahendra. I am truly grateful to you for all you did to get my friend Michael's article published. It goes without saying that you are unique in your abilities and we are all proud you are our 'batch mate'! I find Diatoms fascinating now that I have had the chance to read Michael's work and Wikipedia entry on this subject. The 'small world' is as interesting as the macro world we inhabit. It shows that if we take the trouble to look a bit deeper into things there are very interesting stories to enjoy. We were quite used to peering into microscopes during our training years and we know some of our members made it their main work choice too. Where would we be without labour of all these people who unravel what goes unnoticed by the naked eye! Zita

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