August 29, 2011

Panda Poop Could Be Potential Biofuel Source


Scientists said on Monday that panda poop could be a potential treasure trove for making biofuels.

Scientists reported today at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) that panda poop contains bacteria with potent effects in breaking down plant material in the way needed to tap biomass as a major new source of "biofuels" produced from grass, wood chips and crop wastes.

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

Brown said that bacteria from the giant panda are promising for breaking down the super-tough plant material known as lignocellulose in switch grass, corn stalks and wood chips.

She said that advancements could speed the development of so-called cellulosic biofuels made from these tough plant materials in a way that does not rely on precious food crops like corn, soybeans and sugar now being used to make biofuels.

Scientists have known that giant pandas have bacteria in their digestive systems that break down the cellulose in plants into nutrients.  Bamboo makes up of roughly 99 percent of a giant panda's diet in the wild.  An adult male eats about 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo each day.

The researchers collected and analyzed the fresh feces of a pair of male and female pandas at the Memphis Zoo for over a year.  They found several types of digestive bacteria in the panda feces, including some that are similar to those found in termites.

"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 biofuel manufacturing purposes," Brown, who is with Mississippi State University, said in a statement.

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 so powerful they can eliminate the need for high heat, harsh acids and high pressures currently used in biofuel production processes, according to the researchers.

"The discovery also teaches a lesson about the importance of biodiversity 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."

The U.S. Department of Energy, The Memphis Zoological Society, the Mississippi Corn Promotion Board, and the Southeastern Research Center at Mississippi State provided funding for this study.


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