What else can diatoms be used for?

So you can find diatoms in aquatic environments. But did you know you can also find diatoms in nail polish and toothpaste too?

When diatoms die and fall to the bottom of the sea floor or a lake bed, they can get mixed in with clays and organic matter. If this sediment is then exposed it forms a white silica rich mineral - this is diatomite1.

Diatomite can be used for lots of things! Swimming pool and drinking fountain filters contain it, as well as nail polish and car paint. It can also be used for cat litter and toxic spills. Diatomite is also used within buildings as a sound proofing material as well as insulation1.

Lots of diatomite is referred to as diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is used as a pest repellent. This is because it absorbs the water-protective fats and oils from the outermost layer of insects. So essentially all the water is 'sucked out' of the insect. As diatoms are made from silica this makes diatomaceous earth very abrasive, and so the sharpness enhances the particles as a pesticide2.

Diatoms are also useful in forensic studies. If a person has drowned then diatoms are able to enter the human body. If a victim has breathed in water, diatoms can enter their blood stream, bone marrow, brain, lungs and kidneys. If diatoms are found in bone marrow, it is a good indicator that the victim was alive when they entered the water1,3. The similarity of the diatoms present in the water that the body is found in and the diatoms present in the body can help to discover whether the body was moved. Diatoms and diatomaceous sediments on clothes and materials found at sites can also aid forensic investigations3.

Diatom glass covers are quite effective at capturing sunlight. So engineers have been using them to increase solar energy cell efficiency by nearly 50% (in comparison to other solar cells)1.

I think we can safely conclude that diatoms are tiny...but mighty!


1. Blinn DW & Blinn SL (2012)  "Diatoms: unnoticed living jewels in the water", USA,  Maple Creek Media c/o Old Line Publishing LLC

2. University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (2006) "Diatomaceous earth" , Pest Press, 6, 1-2 [Available from: http://cals.arizona.edu/urbanipm/pest_press/2006/september.pdf]

3. Verma K (2013) "Role of Diatoms in the World of Forensic Science" , Journal of Forensic Research4: 181. doi: 10.4172/2157-7145.100018

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Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith