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The Promise of Panda Poop

The dung of the bamboo-loving bears contains bacteria that could be the next best thing for biofuels production.

By | August 30, 2011

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, CHEN WU

The microbes living in the excrement of giant pandas may help breakdown materials from grasses, wood, and crop wastes, according to scientists presenting at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

While the biofuels industry currently focuses on corn, soybeans, and other crops, the discovery of cellulose-digesting bacteria could open the door to a whole new suite of biofuels sources, such as switchgrass, corn stalks and wood chips. Such bacteria are known to exist in the digestive systems of pandas, cattle and termites, to help them breakdown their cellulose-rich diets. Now, researchers at Mississippi State University have detailed the species residing in panda feces collected over the past year from animals at the Memphis Zoo. They identified several bacteria—including some previously found in termites—that collectively can convert some 95 percent of the panda's consumed plant biomass into simple sugars. The microbes employ enzymes that work without heat, toxic chemicals, or high pressures, and could provide a more efficient and cheaper way to produce biofuels, study co-author Ashli Brown, a Mississippi State researcher, said in a press release.

“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?” said Brown. “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.”

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