200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 43: “Science Up Close ”

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photo of a scientist with old diatom specimens
Dr. Marina Potapova examines one of the German booklets in the Academy's Diatom Herbarium.

Science Up Close

Academy researchers are well-known in the science world for their explorations of diatoms, microscopic algae that are abundant in all aquatic habitats on Earth and produce approximately one-fifth of all organic matter on the planet. Scientists study diatom diversity to understand many things about the area in which the diatoms were collected, including rock age, climate changes over time, human land use, watershed modification, and water quality. Studying diatom diversity also can lead to the development of new uses for these organisms, including biofuel production and medications.

Here at the Academy Diatom Herbarium, we keep a series of little old booklets published in Germany between the 1830s and 60s. These booklets hold the key to the knowledge of diatom diversity. Instead of text and illustrations, the pages contain tiny, glued-in packages with pieces of aquatic plants, dried mud, or little specks of dust dried on glass. These specimens, which are used to describe certain species, are called “types.” When a contemporary researcher investigates a group of diatoms and suspects that some species have already been described, he or she takes a small portion of the type specimen and studies it using modern methods. This process helps distinguish species that have been described in the past from newly discovered species. The study of type specimens helps scientists reveal the true diversity of diatoms and find multiple applications for these resources.

Want to know more about what is going on in the Academy’s Diatom Herbarium? Visit ansp.org to find out!

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