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Systems Biology for Energy and the Environment

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Diatom Genome Reveals Key Role in Biosphere's Carbon Cycle

WALNUT CREEK, CA--The first genetic instruction manual of a diatom, from a family of microscopic ocean algae that are among the Earth's most prolific carbon dioxide assimilators, has yielded important insights on how the creature uses nitrogen, fats, and silica to thrive.

The diatom DNA sequencing project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and conducted at the DOE Joint Genome Institute, provides insight into how the diatom species Thalassiosira pseudonana prospers in the marine environment while it contributes to absorbing the major greenhouse gas CO2, in amounts comparable to all the world's tropical rain forests combined.

"This critical information enables us to better understand the vital role that diatoms and other phytoplankton play in mediating global warming," says Dan Rokhsar, who heads computational genomics at the JGI and is one of the co-authors of the paper. "Now that we have a glimpse at the inner workings of diatoms, we're better positioned to understand how changes in their population numbers will translate into environmental changes and the global carbon management picture."

"These organisms are incredibly important in the global carbon cycle," says Virginia Armbrust, a University of Washington associate professor of oceanography and lead author of the Science paper. Together, the single-celled organisms generate as much as 40 percent of the 50 billion to 55 billion tons of organic carbon produced each year in the sea and in the process use carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

DOE Joint Genome Institute press release
Diatom sequencing project at University of Washington (Seattle)
Science paper:
Related Science article:
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"Secrets of the CO2 Eaters" (Wired News, 1 October 2004),1294,65164,00.html
"A Tiny Critter's Day in the Sun" (Newsday, October 1, 2004)

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