Planktonic diatoms in freshwater and marine environments typically exhibit a "boom and bust" (or "bloom and bust") lifestyle. When conditions in the upper mixed layer (nutrients and light) are favourable (e.g. at the start of spring) their competitive edge allows them to quickly dominate phytoplankton communities ("boom" or "bloom"). As such they are often classed as opportunistic r-strategists (i.e. those organisms whose ecology is defined by a high growth rate, r).
When conditions turn unfavourable, usually upon depletion of nutrients, diatom cells typically increase in sinking rate and exit the upper mixed layer ("bust"). This sinking is induced by either a loss of buoyancy control, the synthesis of mucilage that sticks diatoms cells together, or the production of heavy resting spores. Sinking out of the upper mixed layer removes diatoms from conditions unfavourable to growth, including grazer populations and higher temperatures (which would otherwise increase cell metabolism). Cells reaching deeper water or the shallow seafloor can then rest until conditions become more favourable again. In the open ocean, many sinking cells are lost to the deep, but refuge populations can persist near the thermocline.
Ultimately, diatom cells in these resting populations re-enter the upper mixed layer when vertical mixing entrains them. In most circumstances, this mixing also replenishes nutrients in the upper mixed layer, setting the scene for the next round of diatom blooms. In the open ocean (away from areas of continuous upwelling), this cycle of bloom, bust, then return to pre-bloom conditions typically occurs over an annual cycle, with diatoms only being prevalent during the spring and early summer. In some locations, however, an autumn bloom may occur, caused by the breakdown of summer stratification and the entrainment of nutrients while light levels are still sufficient for growth. Since vertical mixing is increasing, and light levels are falling as winter approaches, these blooms are smaller and shorter-lived than their spring equivalents.
In the open ocean, the condition that typically causes diatom (spring) blooms to end is a lack of silicon. Unlike other nutrients, this is only a major requirement of diatoms so it is not regenerated in the plankton ecosystem as efficiently as, for instance, nitrogen or phosphorus nutrients. This can be seen in maps of surface nutrient concentrations - as nutrients decline along gradients, silicon is usually the first to be exhausted (followed normally by nitrogen then phosphorus).
Because of this bloom-and-bust cycle, diatoms are believed to play a disproportionately important role in the export of carbon from oceanic surface waters (see also the biological pump). Significantly, they also play a key role in the regulation of the biogeochemical cycle of silicon in the modern ocean.
The use of silicon by diatoms is believed by many researchers to be the key to their ecological success. In a now classic study, Egge & Aksnes (1992) found that diatom dominance of mesocosm communities was directly related to the availability of silicic acid — when concentrations were greater than 2 mmol m−3, they found that diatoms typically represented more than 70% of the phytoplankton community. Raven (1983) noted that, relative to organic cell walls, silica frustules require less energy to synthesize (approximately 8% of a comparable organic wall), potentially a significant saving on the overall cell energy budget. Other researchers have suggested that the biogenic silica in diatom cell walls acts as an effective pH buffering agent, facilitating the conversion of bicarbonate to dissolved CO2 (which is more readily assimilated). Notwithstanding the possible advantages conferred by silicon, diatoms typically have higher growth rates than other algae of a corresponding size.
Diatoms occur in virtually every environment that contains water. This includes not only oceans, seas, lakes and streams, but also soil.
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