BackgroundDiatoms are important single-celled autotrophs that dominate most lit aquatic environments and are distinguished by surficial frustules with intricate designs of unknown function.
Principal findingsWe show that some frustule designs constrain diffusion to positively alter nutrient uptake. In nutrient gradients of 4 to 160 times over <5 cm, the screened-chambered morphology of Coscincodiscus sp. biases the nutrient diffusion towards the cell by at least 3.8 times the diffusion to the seawater. In contrast, the open-chambers of Thalassiosira eccentrica produce at least a 1.3 times diffusion advantage to the membrane over Coscincodiscus sp. when nutrients are homogeneous.
SignificanceDiffusion constraint explains the success of particular diatom species at given times and the overall success of diatoms. The results help answer the unresolved question of how adjacent microplankton compete. Furthermore, diffusion constraint by supramembrane nanostructures to alter molecular diffusion suggests that microbes compete via supramembrane topology, a competitive mechanism not considered by the standard smooth-surface equations used for nutrient uptake nor in microbial ecology and cell physiology.