MADISON Denizens of oceans, lakes and even wet soil, diatoms are unicellular algae that encase themselves in intricately patterned, glass-like shells. Curiously, these tiny phytoplankton could be harboring the next big breakthrough in computer chips.
Diatoms build their hard cell walls by laying down submicron-sized lines of silica, a compound related to the key material of the semiconductor industrysilicon. If we can genetically control that process, we would have a whole new way of performing the nanofabrication used to make computer chips, says Michael Sussman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemistry professor and director of the UW-Madisons Biotechnology Center.
To that end, a team led by Sussman and diatom expert Virginia Armbrust of the University of Washington has reported finding a set of 75 genes specifically involved in silica bioprocessing in the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana, as published today in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Armbrust, an oceanography professor who studies the ecological role of diatoms, headed up the effort to sequence the genome of T. pseudonana, which was completed in 2004.
The new data will enable Sussman to start manipulating the genes responsible for silica production and potentially harness them to produce lines on computer chips. This could vastly increase chip speed, Sussman says, because diatoms are capable of producing lines much smaller than current technology allows.
The semiconductor industry has been able to double the density of transistors on computer chips every few years. Theyve been doing that using photolithographic techniques for the past 30 years, explains Sussman. But they are actually hitting a wall now because theyre getting down to the resolution of visible light.
Before diatoms were appreciated for their engineering prowess, they interested ecologists for their role in the planets carbon cycle. These photosynthetic cells
|Contact: Michael Sussman|
University of Wisconsin-Madison