Complex micro- and nano-structured materials for photonic applications are designed and fabricated using top technologies. A completely different approach to engineering systems at the sub-micron-scale consists in recognizing the nanostructures and morphologies that nature has optimized during life's history on earth. In fact, biological organisms could exhibit ordered geometries and complex photonic structures which often overcome the products of the best available fabrication technologies. An example is given by diatoms. They are microalgae with a peculiar cell wall made of amorphous hydrated silica valves, reciprocally interconnected in a structure called the frustule. Valve surfaces exhibit specie-specific patterns of regular arrays of chambers, called areolae, developed into the frustule depth. Areolae range in diameter from few hundreds of nanometers up to few microns, and can be circular, polygonal or elongate. The formation of these patterns can be modeled by self-organised phase separation. Despite of the high level of knowledge on the genesis and morphology of diatom frustules, their functions are not completely understood. In this work, we show that the silica skeletons of marine diatoms, characterized by a photonic crystal-like structure, have surprising optical properties, being capable of filtering and focalizing light, as well as exhibiting optical sensing capabilities.