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Special to the Journal Sentinel
Posted: April 15, 2007

They're dubbed "nature's nanotechnologists" - one-celled algae called diatoms that create exquisite and delicate patterns in their cell walls.

University of Wisconsin-Madison biologist Michael Sussman and his colleagues are struggling to understand these organisms, with the goal of using their designs in nanomanufacturing - producing sensors, drug delivery systems and computer chips.

These algae "make intricate designs with nano-sized features. We believe they are genetically controlled," said Sussman, a professor of biochemistry and director of the UW's Biotechnology Center. "What we are hoping is that we can genetically manipulate these designs to make patterns that we want to make rather than what the diatoms want to make."

Diatoms create their cell walls of silica, also known as silicon dioxide, by taking in silicic acid from their watery environment and transforming it into silica.

"The idea that we can use biology to improve technology is a very exciting prospect," said Virginia Armbrust, a University of Washington oceanographer.

She led a team of dozens of researchers that sequenced the genome of an ocean-dwelling diatom, T. pseudonana, in 2004.

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