Food crisis lifeline as treasure trove of sugar supplies found hiding under ocean floor

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Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has dramatically reduced the production of crops and fertiliser in Europe, driving vulnerable areas in the Middle East and Africa to the brink of famine. Meanwhile, it has also had a knock-on effect in the West, as the price of staples soar – with supermarket prices expected to rise by as much as 20 percent. Brazil, the world’s largest producer of coffee, soybeans, and sugar imports more than 30 percent of its fertiliser from Russia.

But, hidden beneath the waves of the world’s oceans may be vast reserves of sugar that we never were aware of, according to new research.

Scientists have found that seagrass meadows on the ocean floor can store huge amounts of the sweet stuff underneath their waving fronds.

It comes in the form of sucrose, which is the main ingredient of sugar used in the kitchen and it’s released from the seagrasses into the soil underneath.

This area is known as the rhizo­sphere and it means the concentrations are up to 80 times higher than they would be normally.

Experts estimate that there could be up to 1.3 million tonnes of sucrose hiding in the world’s ocean beds.

They predict it would be enough to create 32 billion cans of Coca-Cola.

Marine microbiologist Nicole Dubilier said: “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.”

And the excess sugar is not eaten by microorganisms in the water thanks to the seagrasses sending out phenolic compounds in the same way as many other plants do.

These chemical compounds inhibit the metabolism of most microorganisms and slow them down.

And the experts have put this to the test.

Marine microbiologist Maggie Sogin added: “In our ex­per­i­ments we ad­ded phen­olics isol­ated from seagrass to the mi­croor­gan­isms in the seagrass rhizo­sphere.

“And in­deed, much less sucrose was con­sumed com­pared to when no phenolics were present.”

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Seagrasses already play a vital role in the planet’s ecosystem for carbon capture.

And now scientists hope they may also play a vital role in food supplies.

Ms Sogin added: “We do not know as much about seagrass as we do about land-based hab­it­ats.

“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.”

The research has been published in Nature Eco­logy & Evol­u­tion.

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