A treasure trove for those in the know

The Hustedt Diatom Study Centre is now 50 years old – high time to take a look at this important collection and the unique life’s work behind it.

At the entrance there’s a simple A4 printout with a ring of artistically arranged diatoms and the words “Friedrich Hustedt Diatom Study Centre”. For those not familiar with the name, this sign doesn’t give much indication that behind this door lies one of the world’s largest and most valuable collections of diatoms. More than 100,000 specimens and 50,000 diatom samples are stored here, all carefully organised in wooden boxes.

A diatom researcher’s life work

As the name suggests, the majority of the collection was supplied by Dr Friedrich Hustedt. For the Bremen art teacher and later headmaster, diatom microscopy started out as a hobby. “Hustedt took samples from local waters and carefully prepared them. In this way, over the years he described over 7,000 new species of diatoms and made detailed sketches of about 2,000 of these single-celled organisms,” explains Bánk Beszteri, curator of the Friedrich Hustedt Centre.

In addition to these local species, Hustedt also collected samples and specimens from around the globe, some of which are over 150 years old and both historically and scientifically extremely valuable, like those from the Norwegian polar explorer Fritjof Nansen, or those from Gauss’s expedition – the first German Antarctic expedition. Often it’s only experts who recognise the true value of the collection. “Sometimes we don’t realise just how precious a specimen is until a researcher gets so excited about a find that he or she doesn’t want to leave Bremerhaven,” explains Friedel Hinz, who served the centre faithfully as a technical assistant for 38 years.

Hustedt spent over half a century gathering his private collection, which became one of the largest of its kind in the world. “As Hustedt grew older, he wanted to ensure that his work would be preserved after he had retired. That’s why he sold it to the City of Bremen with the proviso that it not be split up,” states Bánk Beszteri. To this end, exactly 50 years ago the Friedrich-Hustedt-Arbeitsplatz für Diatomeenkunde was founded at the Institute for Marine Research in Bremerhaven, which became part of the AWI in 1986.

Hustedt’s collection has not only remained intact – it has continued to expand. “Every year diatom researchers around the globe send us circa 100 samples and specimens. Sometimes we even inherit entire collections. And needless to say, AWI researchers also bring us new samples every year from their “Polarstern” expeditions,” explains Friedel Hinz.

A historic collection supporting today’s research

As this shows: the Friedrich Hustedt Diatom Study Centre collection is by no means gathering dust. “It’s a place where research is actively pursued. For example we have frequent visits from taxonomists who have identified new species and want to compare their discoveries with our specimens. But diatoms are also the most important primary producers in the polar regions, and as such they are common objects of study for scientists from various departments at our institute,” says Bánk Beszteri.

To give just a few examples: geologists investigate diatoms to draw conclusions about past climate changes, while biogeochemists observe how the single-celled organisms influence the carbon dioxide balance between the atmosphere and the ocean. Plankton ecologists, on the other hand, study the extent to which climate change alters the spread of these algae and ecophysiologists explore whether the rising temperatures and decreasing pH levels of seawater have a negative effect on diatom photosynthesis or whether they possibly even promote it. Bionics experts are more interested in diatoms’ varied and often elaborate silica cell walls, since these intricate yet robust structures are an example of how to achieve maximum stability with minimum materials – be it for wheel rims, washing machines or wind turbines.

A centre where the door is open to everyone

“We are always happy to be able to help our colleagues – whatever research area they’re from. It also motivates us to continue networking the collection, and to make it accessible to everyone,” states Bánk Beszteri. Accordingly, one of our on-going projects is to expand the Hustedt Collection database. Friedel Hinz and her colleagues have already collected data for over 50,000 specimens and put them online (hustedt.awi.de) – so that this unique collection remains available to everyone, not just those who venture beyond the unassuming sign at the door.

(Kristina Bär, March 2015)