Diatoms are highly abundant unicellular algae that often dominate pelagic as well as benthic primary production in the oceans and inland waters. Being strictly dependent on silica to build their biomineralized cell walls, marine diatoms precipitate 240 × 1012 mol Si per year, which makes them the major sink in the global Si cycle. Dissolved silicic acid (dSi) availability frequently limits diatom productivity and influences species composition of communities. We show that benthic diatoms selectively perceive and behaviourally react to gradients of dSi. Cell speed increases under dSi-limited conditions in a chemokinetic response and, if gradients of this resource are present, increased directionality of cell movement promotes chemotaxis. The ability to exploit local and short-lived dSi hotspots using a specific search behaviour likely contributes to micro-scale patch dynamics in biofilm communities. On a global scale this behaviour might affect sediment–water dSi fluxes and biogeochemical cycling.