Mountains of sugar are hiding beneath seagrass meadows
Scientists have found a mindboggling deposit of sugar in an odd place: underneath seagrass meadows in the oceans of the world.
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According to researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, seagrass meadows conceal mountains of sugar. It’s like a Willy Wonka fantasy, with enough sugar to power 32 billion cans of Coke, according to Manuel Liebeke, a scientist at the institute. “To put this into perspective: we estimate that worldwide there are between 0.6 and 1.3 million tons of sugar, mainly in the form of sucrose,” said Liebeke in a press release.
What’s with all this underwater sugar? “Seagrasses produce sugar during photosynthesis,” said Nicole Dubilier, director at the Max Planck Institute. “Under average light conditions, these plants use most of the sugars they produce for their own metabolism and growth. But under high light conditions, for example at midday or during the summer, the plants produce more sugar than they can use or store. Then they release the excess sucrose into their rhizosphere. Think of it as an overflow valve.”
Bacteria living underneath the roots of seagrass consume sugar, which supplies them with the energy to produce nitrogen and other nutrients to fertilize seagrass meadows. However, the seagrass releases phenolic compounds which prevent the bacteria from digesting the sugar. And that’s lucky for us, because researchers determined that if the bacteria were to eat all this stored sugar, we’d be facing an additional 1.54 million tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. This is about the same amount that 330,000 gas-guzzling cars spew out in a year.
So this means we need to protect seagrass meadows, which are one of Earth’s most threatened habitat types. All of the world’s oceans are experiencing a rapid decline in seagrass, with annual losses up to 7% in some places. “We do not know as much about seagrass as we do about land-based habitats,” said Maggie Sogin, who led the Max Planck Institute’s research off the Italian island of Elba, where a particularly high concentration of sucrose was found. “Our study contributes to our understanding of one of the most critical coastal habitats on our planet, and highlights how important it is to preserve these blue carbon ecosystems.”