Diatoms - Evolutionary History

Evolutionary History

Heterokont chloroplasts appear to be derived from those of red algae, rather than directly from prokaryotes as occurred in plants. This suggests they had a more recent origin than many other algae. However, fossil evidence is scant, and it is really only with the evolution of the diatoms themselves that the heterokonts make a serious impression on the fossil record.

The earliest known fossil diatoms date from the early Jurassic (~185 Ma), although molecular clock and sedimentary evidence suggests an earlier origin. It has been suggested that their origin may be related to the end-Permian mass extinction (~250 Ma), after which many marine niches were opened. The gap between this event and the time that fossil diatoms first appear may indicate a period when diatoms were unsilicified and their evolution was cryptic. Since the advent of silicification, diatoms have made a significant impression on the fossil record, with major deposits of fossil diatoms found as far back as the early Cretaceous, and some rocks (diatomaceous earth, diatomite, kieselguhr) being composed almost entirely of them.

Although the diatoms may have existed since the Triassic, the timing of their ascendancy and "take-over" of the silicon cycle is more recent. Prior to the Phanerozoic (before 544 Ma), it is believed that microbial or inorganic processes weakly regulated the ocean's silicon cycle. Subsequently, the cycle appears dominated (and more strongly regulated) by the radiolarians and siliceous sponges, the former as zooplankton, the latter as sedentary filter feeders primarily on the continental shelves. Within the last 100 My, it is thought that the silicon cycle has come under even tighter control, and that this derives from the ecological ascendancy of the diatoms.

However, the precise timing of the "take-over" is unclear, and different authors have conflicting interpretations of the fossil record. Some evidence, such as the displacement of siliceous sponges from the shelves, suggests that this takeover began in the Cretaceous (146 Ma to 65 Ma), while evidence from radiolarians suggests "take-over" did not begin until the Cenozoic (65 Ma to present). The expansion of grassland biomes and the evolutionary radiation of grasses during the Miocene is believed to have increased the flux of soluble silicon to the oceans, and it has been argued that this has promoted the diatoms during the Cenozoic era. However, work on the variation of diatom diversity during the Cenozoic suggests instead that diatom success is decoupled from the evolution of grasses, and that diatoms were most diverse prior to the diversification of grasses. Nevertheless, regardless of the details of the "take-over" timing, it is clear that this most recent revolution has installed much tighter biological control over the biogeochemical cycle of silicon.

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