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.

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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.”

Via The Weather Network, Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology

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