Silicon, in its various forms, finds widespread use in electronic, optical, and Structural materials. Research on uses of silicon and silica has been intense for decades, raising the question of how much diversity is left for innovation with this element. Shape variation is particularly well examined. Here, we review the principles revealed by diatom frustules, the porous silica shells of diatoms, microscopic, unicellular algae. The frustules have nanometer-scale detail, and the almost 100 000 species with unique frustule morphologies suggest nuanced structural and optical functions well beyond the current ranges used in advanced materials. The unique frustule morphologies have arisen through tens of millions of years of evolutionary selection, and so are likely to reflect optimized design and function. Performing the structural and optical equivalent of data mining, and understanding and adopting these designs, affords a new paradigm in materials science, an alternative to combinatorial materials synthesis approaches in spurring the development of new material and more nuanced materials.