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Tiny Creatures May be the Strongest on the Planet

First Posted: Feb 10, 2016 10:58 AM EST

Some of the tiniest creatures in the world may be the strongest. Scientists have taken a closer look at diatoms, which are single-celled algae organisms, and have found that these creatures are far stronger than you might thing.

Diatoms are encased within a hard shell shaped like a wide, flattened cylinder-like a tambourine-that is made of silica. Researchers have recently found that these shells have the highest specific strength-the strength at which a structure breaks with respect to its density-of any known biological material, including bone, antlers and teeth.

The shell, or frustule, of a diatom is porous, perforated by a honeycomb-like pattern of holes. There are several theories about the function of these intricate shell designs, including that they evolved to control fluid flow, for example, or to help the organisms acquire nutrients.

In this case, the researchers believe that the holes act as stress concentrators-flaws in the material that can suppress the propagation of cracks, which would lead to failure of the entire organism.

"Silica is a strong but brittle material," said Julia Greer, one of the researchers, in a news release. "But architecting this material into the complex design of these diatom shells actually creates a structure that is resilient against damage. The presence of the holes delocalizes the concentrations of stress on the structure."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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