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Panda Poop Power Promising for Biofuel Production

Sep 11, 2013 03:18 PM EDT

Ya Ya and Le Le, two giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo, are making regular contributions to research into more sustainable biofuel production by providing plenty of panda poop.

As odd as it may sound, researchers say using panda poop to develop biofuels could become a great boon to the industry, which often faces criticism for using perfectly good food, namely corn and soy beans, to make fuel.

Presenting at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), researcher Ashli Brown of Mississippi State University, said that if further research into panda poop power proves successful, she will reach out for "contributions" from other pandas.

"The giant pandas are contributing their feces," Brown said. "We have discovered microbes in panda feces might actually be a solution to the search for sustainable new sources of energy. It's amazing that here we have an endangered species that's almost gone from the planet, yet there's still so much we have yet to learn from it. That underscores the importance of saving endangered and threatened animals."

Brown and her colleagues identified more than 40 gut microbes that could make biofuel production from plant waste easier and cheaper. Those microbes, naturally, make their way in to the panda's excrement as well.

Researching the poop microbes may also lead to the discovery of new information that can be used to keep pandas healthy.

In the US, ethanol made from corn, is the most abundant alternative fuel. But common criticisms over biofuels includes that the widespread use of corn, soybeans and other food crops to make biofuels could contribute to increased food prices or lead to shortages of food.

One alternative researchers are exploring is using inedible food parts and other plant material, such as corn stalks and corn cobs, as sources of ethanol. But doing so on a large scale is costly and difficult because of the tough-to-break-down lignocellulose in plant waste and other crops grown for ethanol production.

But the bacteria in the panda poop have proven to be prime candidates for a novel way of breaking down the rough plant matter. Panda's digestive tracts are short, and their diet of bamboo requires their bodies to break down significant amounts of lignocellulose.

"The time from eating to defecation is comparatively short in the panda, so their microbes have to be very efficient to get nutritional value out of the bamboo," Brown said. "And efficiency is key when it comes to biofuel production -- that's why we focused on the microbes in the giant panda."

Brown's team identified the bacteria that break down the lignocellulose into simple sugars, which can be fermented into bioethanol. Moreover, they found that they can transform those sugars into oils and fats for biodiesel production, which led the researchers to believe that the bacteria or the enzymes in the panda poop could be worked into the industrial process of biofuel production.

"These studies also help us learn more about this endangered animal's digestive system and the microbes that live in it, which is important because most of the diseases pandas get affect their guts," Brown said. "Understanding the relationships between the microbes and the pandas, as well as how they get their energy and nutrition, is extremely important from a conservation standpoint, as fewer than 2,500 giant pandas are left in the wild and only 200 are in captivity."

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