Microcosmos is a new artwork by Luke Jerram commissioned by The University of Sheffield for Biofest 2023 – a unique festival bringing exciting, cutting-edge bioscience research to new audiences through a programme of free events, films, talks and exhibitions.
Diatoms are single-celled microscopic algae that can be found worldwide in marine and freshwater environments. They are the only organism on the planet with cell walls composed of transparent, opaline silica (glass).
Diatoms are an enigma, neither plant nor animal, they share biochemical features of both. Like plants they photosynthesise, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. They do this on a massive scale, performing an estimated 20% of the earth’s entire photosynthetic carbon dioxide fixing – that’s equivalent to all the rainforests combined! They’re effectively responsible for the air in every fifth breath we take. Used as bioindicators, diatoms are studied to monitor climate change and water quality.
Created from cast glass, these sculptures are approximately 1000 times larger than real diatom.
Luke says “I wanted to replicate, three dimensionally, the experience of looking into a microscope and observing diatom. They form the base of the food chain for so much life on Earth and through the carbon dioxide they sequester, and the oxygen they produce, are vital to our planet’s atmosphere. With such incredible sculptural forms, and the fact diatom are made from glass, it made sense to celebrate them this way.”
Diatoms can also provide us with valuable insight into what is happening within our aquatic ecosystems right now. They respond rapidly to changes in their environment and species will reproduce or decline in particular conditions. In optimal conditions, some species can grow into enormous colonies, or ‘blooms’, that are so large they can even be seen from space! As they reproduce rapidly, they can provide early warning signals for physical and chemical changes to the water. Some species are more tolerant to pollution than others, so by collecting and sampling diatoms, we can get an idea of how polluted a body of water is. Read more about diatoms in the study of water quality.