Nearly 50 years ago, inorganic carbon was shown to be fixed in microalgae as the C3 compound phosphoglyceric acid. The enzyme responsible for C3 carbon fixation, ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase (Rubisco), however, requires inorganic carbon in the form of CO2 (ref. 2), and Rubisco enzymes from diatoms have half-saturation constants for CO2 of 30-60 microM (ref. 3). As a result, diatoms growing in seawater that contains about 10 microM CO2 may be CO2 limited. Kinetic and growth studies have shown that diatoms can avoid CO2 limitation, but the biochemistry of the underlying mechanisms remains unknown. Here we present evidence that C4 photosynthesis supports carbon assimilation in the marine diatom Thalassiosira weissflogii, thus providing a biochemical explanation for CO2-insensitive photosynthesis in marine diatoms. If C4 photosynthesis is common among marine diatoms, it may account for a significant portion of carbon fixation and export in the ocean, and would explain the greater enrichment of 13C in diatoms compared with other classes of phytoplankton. Unicellular C4 carbon assimilation may have predated the appearance of multicellular C4 plants.