Annals of Aquaculture and Research

The Oil Production Capacity of Diatoms

Review Article | Open Access

  • 1. School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, Australia
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Corresponding Authors
Sophie C. Leterme, School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide 5001, Australia, Tel: 61 8 8201 3774; Fax: 61 8 8201 3015

A considerable effort has been made to identify microalgae suitable for the development of new bio products. However, diatoms have been underexplored despite their adaptability, high versatility and high productivity. This review focuses on the potential use of diatoms to develop new bio products for industrial applications. In particular, cellular mechanisms responsible for lipid synthesis and accumulation exist in diatoms and can maximize lipid (oil) production. Since diatoms are present in various types of ecosystems, from rivers to seas and ice sheets, they are very versatile and can adapt to a range of environmental conditions. Understanding the mechanisms behind the response of diatoms to particular water conditions will significantly advance our knowledge of morphogenesis and metabolism in diatoms. In particular, by modifying diatom growth parameters, it is possible to shift their metabolism towards high lipid accumulation and storage. The versatility of diatoms could then be used to promote the development of new bio products for industrial, agricultural and pharmaceutical applications. This review discusses the distinctive features of diatoms and recent advances enabling potential industrial use of diatoms for oil production.


Leterme SC (2015) The Oil Production Capacity of Diatoms. Ann Aquac Res 2(1): 1007.


•    Lipid accumulation
•    Nutrient conditions
•    Cellular mechanisms
•    Algae
•    Adaptation


N: Nitrogen; P: Phosphorus; Si: Silicon; Zn: Zinc; Fe: Iron; PUFAs: Polyunsaturated fatty acids; TAGs: Triacylglycerides; PL: Phospholipids; GL: Glycolipids; SFE: Supercritical fluid extraction; SCCO2: Supercritical carbon dioxide


Diatoms are a major component of the phytoplankton community, accounting for approximately 40% of total primary production in the ocean [1,2]. They contribute to the export of carbon into the deep ocean and are the main players of the biogeochemical cycles of macro-nutrients such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and silicon (Si) [3-6]. Importantly, they are keystone organisms affecting zooplankton grazing and recruitment [7,8] at the base of the pelagic food chain. Therefore, critically, any change in diatom levels propagates up the pelagic food-chain. As diatoms have the potential for rapid growth and short generation times, they respond quickly to changing environmental conditions. For example, previous work has shown that the nanostructure and Si composition of diatoms’ frustules appear to be influenced by environmental factors such as salinity [9-11].

The uptake of Si needed for the formation of the frustule is related to the presence of other nutrients in the environment as well as to the size of the diatom cells. In particular, nutrients such as N, P, Zn and Fe have been shown to impact on the uptake of silicic acid Si (OH)4 by the diatoms [12,13] which subsequently impacts on the size of the cells present under those conditions and on their storage capabilities. In addition, intermittent fluctuations in nutrient levels can increase nutrient storage abilities [14,15] and has also been shown as increasing lipid synthesis and accumulation [16]. Since cell size and shape plays a role in nutrient uptake and storage, diatoms of different shapes i.e. centric (round) and/ or pennate (elongated) and sizes can be used to monitor the impact of nutrient, light and salinity conditions (i.e. low, high and intermittent), on (i) their growth rate, (ii) the uptake of photo-assimilates and nutrients for proliferation and (iii) their accumulation and storage. The quantification of the influence of size and shape, exposed to variable environmental conditions, is of great importance in mechanistic interpretation of growth rates and storage capacities.

In the past decade, a considerable effort has been made to identify species of microalgae, including diatoms, which are suitable for high lipid production [17,18]. Diatoms have been shown to contain high amounts of lipids and store lipids [19,20] more efficiently than any other macro algae [21]. In particular, the lipid content of diatoms is much higher under nutrient limitations which represent stress conditions occurring at the end of a bloom [18,22]. Diatoms naturally thrive under nutrientreplete conditions, meaning that ?maximal growth rate is obtained in culture conditions, which is an ideal characteristic for a bio fuel production system. In addition, diatoms also grow best under highly mixed conditions, which are desirable for largescale cultivation. Finally, the extraction of lipids from diatoms is easier than with other algae as the individual parts of the diatom frustule can easily be disrupted to allow for the removal of lipids and pigments from the cells via solvent-extraction [23,24]. Diatoms therefore have a great potential as natural bio product producers.


Diatoms are single-celled algae encased in silica-based cell walls similar to a Petri dish, with overlapping upper and lower halves called the epitheca and hypotheca, respectively [25]. Their cell wall is reproduced with fidelity through generations by genetically controlled assembly processes and can reach a few hundred microns in size [26]. Each of the estimated 105 diatom species has a specific valve capping the thecae, which is decorated with a unique pattern of nano-sized features [27]. The pores present within the valves are species specific and provide precise features for the identification of diatoms [28]. The energy needed for silicification is provided by aerobic respiration and allows for silicic acid uptake, and deposition even in dark conditions [29]. The strategy of building silica-based cells then contributes to the overall productivity of diatoms as the energetic needs for silica polymerization are much lower than an organically based cell wall [30].

The relatively low surface to volume ratios of diatom cells would normally require nutrient-rich conditions for growth. However, diatoms possess a large nutrient storage vacuole which makes them very efficient at nutrient utilization [31,32]. As a result, diatoms can dominate phytoplankton communities and outcompete other eukaryotes under nutrient-limiting conditions [33] or under conditions of mixing and high turbulence [34]. Diatoms are very efficient in adapting to fluctuating environmental conditions. For example, primary production is considered to be limited by iron availability in the ocean; however, diatom species have evolved to employ different strategies to cope with low iron availability [35, 36].The versatility of diatoms allows them to be present in many different environments (i.e., freshwater, seawater, salterns and sea-ice). Since the development of new bio products is regional, and will be defined by the surrounding environmental conditions, diatoms are the ideal candidate for regional production of bio products including bio fuels, livestock and mariculture feed, thermal energy, bio plastics and feed stocks for the nitrogen chemical industry.

Production of lipids

Diatoms take up macronutrients (i.e., N, P, Si), but also store a suite of essential micronutrients that are present at trace concentrations (<0.1 µM) in seawater [37]. Many trace metals (Fe, Co, Zn) are micronutrients essential for the growth of diatoms, and can shape the diatom community structure and distribution. Previous research has demonstrated that diatoms can still grow when conditions of light, salinity and/or nutrients are not optimal. However, those non-optimal conditions have impacts on (i) the uptake of silicic acid needed to construct the frustule (silica shell), (ii) the accumulation of photo-assimilates and nutrients in the cells, (iii) the cells size and shape, and (iv) the growth rates of the diatoms.

For example, low concentrations of Zn and Fe would lower the uptake of silicic acid Si(OH)4 by the diatoms [12,38]; while high N and P concentrations would favor the growth of species with small cell size [39] and high growth rates [40]. Diatoms are excellent lipid accumulators and a substantial portion of the cells’ volume is often occupied by lipid droplets that accumulate rapidly [26].Modifying nutrient levels could favor high biosynthesis and accumulation of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and triacylglycerides (TAGs). In particular, fluctuating nutrient, light and salinity conditions (i.e., varying intermittently between low and high levels) appear to favor large-celled species with higher nutrient storage abilities [41,42] and can lead to metabolite synthesis and high lipid accumulation [16]. In order to optimize the accumulation of lipids in diatoms, recent work has induced stress in a culture grown under optimal conditions to induce lipid synthesis and demonstrated positive lipid accumulation [16].

Several steps are involved in the production of lipids from microalgae, including flocculation and lipid extraction. Once harvested, the culture needs to be concentrated in order to reduce the costs of downstream processing [43]. Flocculation appears to be the most advantageous way of dewatering the culture due to its low energy requirement [16]. During flocculation, microalgae cells adhere to one another to form heavy aggregates which then settle to become concentrate that is dried and milled into a fine powder. Biological based methods of flocculation use extracellular polymeric substance such as polysaccharides and proteins, originating from microalgae or other microorganisms [44]. On the other hand, Chemical based methods of flocculation use inorganic and organic flocculants such as electrolytes and synthetic polymers [45].Recently, low cost flocculation methods using pH showed flocculation efficiencies >90% when used on high density of freshwater microalgae [46].

Microalgae synthesize several types of lipids which can be classified into two categories based on the polarity of their molecular head group [47]: (1) neutral lipids which comprise glycerols, sterols, fatty acids and TAGs and (2) polar lipids which can be further sub-categorized into phospholipids (PL) and glycolipids (GL). Neutral TAGs are used primarily in microalgal cells for energy storage, while polar lipids are structural lipids packed in parallel to form the bilayer of the diatom cell membranes. TAGs are the lipids of highest value for bio fuel production since they undergo trans-esterification where TAGs react with methanol to produce biodiesel and fatty acid methyl esters [48]. The lipid content of diatoms is species-specific but also depends on the method used for extraction. Traditional methods have been using solvents and a mixture of hexane/ isopropanol (3/2 v/v) has been suggested as a low-toxicity option [49] which is selective towards neutral lipids [50-52].The segregation of neutral lipids (i.e., glycerols, sterols, PUFAs and TAGs) is highly desirable as it would allow microalgal biodiesel production to occur with minimal downstream purification. The use of supercritical fluid extraction (SFE) could be a greener option replacing the traditional use of organic solvent. Supercritical carbon dioxide (SCCO2 ) is the primary solvent used in the majority of SFE [49]. Its moderate critical pressure (72.9 atm) allows for a modest compression cost, while its low critical temperature (31.1 ° C) enables successful extraction of thermally sensitive lipid fractions without degradation. SCCO2 facilitates a safe extraction due to its low toxicity, low flammability, and lack of reactivity [53,54]. 

Depending on the bio product being developed, further processing might be needed once the lipids are extracted from the diatoms. It is then essential to take the production of biodiesel with the production of other metabolites analyzed for protein, carbohydrates and cellulose content into consideration. In order to produce bio fuel, the extracted lipids have to be subjected to trans-esterification. The purpose of esterification is to lower fatty acid evaporation temperature by changing the lipid functional group into methyl esters (biodiesel fuel) before GC-MS analysis. The trans-esterification methods have been described [55] and successfully used on diatoms [56] to produce biodiesel using methanol (alcohol), sulphuric acid (catalyst) and hexane (solvent). The alcohol and catalyst are needed to change the lipid functional group into methyl esters, while the solvent will allow for the liquid-liquid separation of the biodiesel from the by-products by centrifugation.

Molecular manipulations

The molecular basis for the ecological success of diatoms is largely unknown. The recent sequencing of the whole genome of Thalassiosirapseudonana [19] and Phaeodactylumtricornutum [57] indicates that these organisms have particular metabolic pathways that might partially explain their extraordinary adaptations to a very wide range of habitats and environmental conditions. Successful genetic transformation has been reported for diatoms [58-64] and in many cases the transformation resulted in the stable expression of trans genes from either the nucleus or the plastid [65]. Since one of the strategies to increase lipid accumulation would be to increase lipid catabolism, the genes responsible for the activation of TAG and free fatty acids would have to be over expressed to increase the cellular lipid content. This has recently been tested on P.tricornutum [66]. DNA transformation could be the solution to achieve gene over expression and successful genetic engineering of the diatoms.


The morphological and physiological plasticity of diatoms allows them to respond very quickly to environmental stress. Preliminary work on lipid production in diatoms [18,19] suggests that it might be possible to shift the metabolism of diatoms towards high lipid accumulation and storage, using stress triggers.

Although several microalgal genomes have been sequenced [19,57,67-69], pathways related to algal lipid biosynthesis remain poorly characterized. However, the genes encoding a complete set of enzymes for several types of (PUFA) biosynthesis pathways were identified in two diatoms: T.pseudonana and P.tricornutum [19,70,71] and a TAG pathway has been hypothesized by [72]. These provide a molecular basis for PUFA and TAG biosynthesis in diatoms in the future.

Despite the gap still existing in the knowledge of lipid metabolism at molecular level in diatoms, recent progress in genome sequencing has indicated how their lipid-biosynthesis pathways differ from plants and other model organisms. Current work undertaken on different species of diatoms will help further deciphering the pathway and will provide the framework for metabolic engineering of diatoms for the production of bio products.


I would like to thank J. Jendyk for proofreading the manuscript.


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Received : 16 Mar 2015
Accepted : 20 Mar 2015
Published : 23 Mar 2015
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ISSN : 2641-7774
Launched : 2016
Annals of Marine Biology and Research
ISSN : 2573-105X
Launched : 2014
JSM Health Education & Primary Health Care
ISSN : 2578-3777
Launched : 2016
JSM Communication Disorders
ISSN : 2578-3807
Launched : 2016
Annals of Musculoskeletal Disorders
ISSN : 2578-3599
Launched : 2016
Annals of Virology and Research
ISSN : 2573-1122
Launched : 2014
JSM Renal Medicine
ISSN : 2573-1637
Launched : 2016
Journal of Muscle Health
ISSN : 2578-3823
Launched : 2016
JSM Genetics and Genomics
ISSN : 2334-1823
Launched : 2013
JSM Anxiety and Depression
ISSN : 2475-9139
Launched : 2016
Clinical Journal of Heart Diseases
ISSN : 2641-7766
Launched : 2016
Annals of Medicinal Chemistry and Research
ISSN : 2378-9336
Launched : 2014
JSM Pain and Management
ISSN : 2578-3378
Launched : 2016
JSM Women's Health
ISSN : 2578-3696
Launched : 2016
Clinical Research in HIV or AIDS
ISSN : 2374-0094
Launched : 2013
Journal of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity
ISSN : 2333-6692
Launched : 2013
Journal of Substance Abuse and Alcoholism
ISSN : 2373-9363
Launched : 2013
JSM Neurosurgery and Spine
ISSN : 2373-9479
Launched : 2013
Journal of Liver and Clinical Research
ISSN : 2379-0830
Launched : 2014
Journal of Drug Design and Research
ISSN : 2379-089X
Launched : 2014
JSM Clinical Oncology and Research
ISSN : 2373-938X
Launched : 2013
JSM Bioinformatics, Genomics and Proteomics
ISSN : 2576-1102
Launched : 2014
JSM Chemistry
ISSN : 2334-1831
Launched : 2013
Journal of Trauma and Care
ISSN : 2573-1246
Launched : 2014
JSM Surgical Oncology and Research
ISSN : 2578-3688
Launched : 2016
Annals of Food Processing and Preservation
ISSN : 2573-1033
Launched : 2016
Journal of Radiology and Radiation Therapy
ISSN : 2333-7095
Launched : 2013
JSM Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
ISSN : 2578-3572
Launched : 2016
Annals of Clinical Pathology
ISSN : 2373-9282
Launched : 2013
Annals of Cardiovascular Diseases
ISSN : 2641-7731
Launched : 2016
Journal of Behavior
ISSN : 2576-0076
Launched : 2016
Annals of Clinical and Experimental Metabolism
ISSN : 2572-2492
Launched : 2016
Clinical Research in Infectious Diseases
ISSN : 2379-0636
Launched : 2013
JSM Microbiology
ISSN : 2333-6455
Launched : 2013
Journal of Urology and Research
ISSN : 2379-951X
Launched : 2014
Journal of Family Medicine and Community Health
ISSN : 2379-0547
Launched : 2013
Annals of Pregnancy and Care
ISSN : 2578-336X
Launched : 2017
JSM Cell and Developmental Biology
ISSN : 2379-061X
Launched : 2013
Clinical Research in Pulmonology
ISSN : 2333-6625
Launched : 2013
Journal of Immunology and Clinical Research
ISSN : 2333-6714
Launched : 2013
Annals of Forensic Research and Analysis
ISSN : 2378-9476
Launched : 2014
JSM Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
ISSN : 2333-7109
Launched : 2013
Annals of Breast Cancer Research
ISSN : 2641-7685
Launched : 2016
Annals of Gerontology and Geriatric Research
ISSN : 2378-9409
Launched : 2014
Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders
ISSN : 2379-0822
Launched : 2014
JSM Burns and Trauma
ISSN : 2475-9406
Launched : 2016
Chemical Engineering and Process Techniques
ISSN : 2333-6633
Launched : 2013
Annals of Clinical Cytology and Pathology
ISSN : 2475-9430
Launched : 2014
JSM Allergy and Asthma
ISSN : 2573-1254
Launched : 2016
Journal of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
ISSN : 2334-2307
Launched : 2013
Annals of Sports Medicine and Research
ISSN : 2379-0571
Launched : 2014
JSM Sexual Medicine
ISSN : 2578-3718
Launched : 2016
Annals of Vascular Medicine and Research
ISSN : 2378-9344
Launched : 2014
JSM Biotechnology and Biomedical Engineering
ISSN : 2333-7117
Launched : 2013
Journal of Hematology and Transfusion
ISSN : 2333-6684
Launched : 2013
JSM Environmental Science and Ecology
ISSN : 2333-7141
Launched : 2013
Journal of Cardiology and Clinical Research
ISSN : 2333-6676
Launched : 2013
JSM Nanotechnology and Nanomedicine
ISSN : 2334-1815
Launched : 2013
Journal of Ear, Nose and Throat Disorders
ISSN : 2475-9473
Launched : 2016
JSM Ophthalmology
ISSN : 2333-6447
Launched : 2013
Journal of Pharmacology and Clinical Toxicology
ISSN : 2333-7079
Launched : 2013
Annals of Psychiatry and Mental Health
ISSN : 2374-0124
Launched : 2013
Medical Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology
ISSN : 2333-6439
Launched : 2013
Annals of Pediatrics and Child Health
ISSN : 2373-9312
Launched : 2013
JSM Clinical Pharmaceutics
ISSN : 2379-9498
Launched : 2014
JSM Foot and Ankle
ISSN : 2475-9112
Launched : 2016
JSM Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementia
ISSN : 2378-9565
Launched : 2014
Journal of Addiction Medicine and Therapy
ISSN : 2333-665X
Launched : 2013
Journal of Veterinary Medicine and Research
ISSN : 2378-931X
Launched : 2013
Annals of Public Health and Research
ISSN : 2378-9328
Launched : 2014
Annals of Orthopedics and Rheumatology
ISSN : 2373-9290
Launched : 2013
Journal of Clinical Nephrology and Research
ISSN : 2379-0652
Launched : 2014
Annals of Community Medicine and Practice
ISSN : 2475-9465
Launched : 2014
Annals of Biometrics and Biostatistics
ISSN : 2374-0116
Launched : 2013
JSM Clinical Case Reports
ISSN : 2373-9819
Launched : 2013
Journal of Cancer Biology and Research
ISSN : 2373-9436
Launched : 2013
Journal of Surgery and Transplantation Science
ISSN : 2379-0911
Launched : 2013
Journal of Dermatology and Clinical Research
ISSN : 2373-9371
Launched : 2013
JSM Gastroenterology and Hepatology
ISSN : 2373-9487
Launched : 2013
Annals of Nursing and Practice
ISSN : 2379-9501
Launched : 2014
JSM Dentistry
ISSN : 2333-7133
Launched : 2013
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