We present the first in vivo study of diatoms using atomic force microscopy (AFM). Three chain-forming, benthic freshwater species -Eunotia sudetica, Navicula seminulum and a yet unidentified species - are directly imaged while growing on glass slides. Using the AFM, we imaged the topography of the diatom frustules at the nanometre range scale and we determined the thickness of the organic case enveloping the siliceous skeleton of the cell (10 nm). Imaging proved to be stable for several hours, thereby offering the possibility to study long-term dynamic changes, such as biomineralization or cell movement, as they occur. We also focused on the natural adhesives produced by these unicellular organisms to adhere to other cells or the substratum. Most man-made adhesives fail in wet conditions, owing to chemical modification of the adhesive or its substrate. Diatoms produce adhesives that are extremely strong and robust both in fresh- and in seawater environments. Our phase-imaging and force-pulling experiments reveal the characteristics of these natural adhesives that might be of use in designing man-made analogues that function in wet environments. Engineering stable underwater adhesives currently poses a major technical challenge.