Estuarine mud, the rivers and oceans are teeming with diatoms: single-celled siliceous micro-organisms living in oceans, rivers, mudflats... everywhere. They are a major part of the ecological food chain, essential for nurturing the health of the planet and therefore human life. Through photosynthesis, diatoms convert CO2 into organic carbon thereby releasing significant quantities of oxygen into the atmosphere (about 20% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by diatoms in our water bodies across the world, each year). Digital light microscopy with Chris Neal.
When oceanic diatoms die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean and through geological processes of fossilization, they form the vast oil lakes that are now increasingly subject to the demands of the ever-expanding human thirst for oil, through the exploitation of fossil-fuels and then the production of petroleum-based polymers (plastics made from fossil fuels).
Discarded plastics break down in micro-plastics which bacteria and diatoms can colonize to become new life-rafts for transporting cells across the oceans. On the other hand, some micro-plastics can transport dangerous microbes and potentially harm diatoms so essential for the life of the planet.
Complex interactions therefore exist between plastics, associated pollutants and cells, which may impact consumers. It’s a complex cycle of relationships in which human activity plays a crucial, often destructive part.