Panda Poop May Hold Key to Major Breakthrough in Biofuels

panda droppings photo
Photo: apium / cc

Pandas are easily among the most beloved species in the world, delighting animal-lovers with their cuddly, plush appearance and playful demeanor -- so much so, in fact, it almost seems they're poop doesn't stink --- though figuratively at least, that may be true. According to the latest research into the viability of alternative energy, panda droppings actually hold a treasure trove of uniquely powerful bacteria that could revolutionize the production of biofuels. And no, I'm not being fecestious.Until recently, the production of biofuels was thought to require specific types of easily compostable organic matter, like from corn and sugar cane, but soon a wider variety of raw plant material could be used as well -- thanks to the stuff in panda poop. Since a panda's diet is composed almost entirely of bamboo stalks, they've developed digestive systems rich in particularly potent bacterial flora to help break down that tough, fibrous cellulose. If those bacteria could be harvested, scientists say that more common organic material, such as grass, wood chips and crop waste, could be used to produce cheaper biofuels.

"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 study co-author Ashli Brown, Ph.D. "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."

In other words, pandas could soon become like the proverbial 'goose that lays the golden eggs' -- with just a few key differences, of course.

For Dr. Brown and her research partners, arriving at this incredible conclusion didn't come easy. Over the course of a year, the team collected and analysed fecal matter of pandas at a zoo in Tennessee for clues. A press-release from the American Chemical Society outlines their findings:

Based on other studies, 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 high pressures currently used in biofuel production processes, 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 less costly way to make biofuels.

It just goes to show the importance of protecting the world's most endangered species isn't merely for their intrinsic value alone -- there may actually be much more benefit to conservation than meets the eye.

Or nose.

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