Diatoms are simple single celled organisms, yet they are incredibly complex in both looks and life. They are found in all water environments on earth, and are often the most abundant photosynthetic organism in the ecosystem.
Diatoms, like plants, have chlorophyll, but like animals have a skeleton. It is this skeleton made of silica that makes them look so complex, and so beautiful.
Now science is turning this beauty to its own devices, by using diatoms to diagnose problems in our rivers and lakes. Diatoms are extremely sensitive to their environment, reacting quickly to any change. For example in mine water runoff streams, diatoms twist, deforming in the presence of heavy metals, allowing an easy assessment of the environmental impact of these sites.
The presence of certain species allows us to diagnose other problems, such as acidification if there are large numbers of Eunotia present. Some species are tolerant to pollution, so can be used to diagnose persistently polluted sites, or tell whether large amounts of nutrients are being passed into the water environment.
So next time you see a beautiful image from the natural world, it could end up being something beautifully useful.