Panda Poop May Be the Answer To A Breakththrough In Biofuels

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08/30/2011 02:37 PM ET

In research for alternative bio fuels, scientists may have come upon a breakthrough when it comes to panda poop. A panda’s diet consists mainly of eating bamboo stalks, and they need a good digestive system to break that stalk down. In that system is potent bacteria that break down the tough plant, and if it could be harvested could expand the range of plant life used in bio-fuel production.

Until recently, the production of bio fuels was thought to require specific types of easily compostable organic matter, like from corn and sugar cane.

“Who would have guessed that ‘panda poop’ might help solve one of the major hurdles to producing bio fuels, which is optimizing the breakdown of the raw plant materials used to make the fuels?” said study co-author Ashli Brown, Ph.D. “We hope our research will help expand the use of bio fuels in the future, and help cut dependency on foreign oil. We also hope it will reinforce the importance of wildlife conservation.”

Brown and colleagues, collected and analyzed the fresh feces of a pair of male and female pandas at the Memphis Zoo for over a year. They identified several types of digestive bacteria in the panda feces, including some that are similar to those found in termites, which are renowned for their ability to digest wood.

“Our studies suggest that bacteria species in the panda intestine may be more efficient at breaking down plant materials than termite bacteria and may do so in a way that is better for bio fuel manufacturing purposes,” said Brown, who is with Mississippi State University.

Brown estimated that under certain conditions, these panda gut bacteria can convert about 95 percent of plant biomass into simple sugars. The bacteria contain enzymes, highly active substances that speed up chemical reactions, so powerful that they can eliminate the need for high heat, harsh acids and pressures currently used in the process of bio fuel production, she said. Those processes also tend to be time-and energy-intensive, as well as expensive. Panda bacteria could therefore provide a faster, cleaner and cheaper way to make bio fuels.

“The discovery also teaches a lesson about the importance of bio diversity and preserving endangered animals,” Brown said, noting that less than 2,500 giant pandas remain in the wild and about 200 are in captivity. “Animals and plants are a major source of medicines and other products that people depend on. When we lose them to extinction, we may lose potential sources of these products.”

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