Other than keeping our bodies regular and adding to the compost, we don’t think much past possible uses of human and animal poop. But new research suggests we should.At the recent 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Denver, scientists reported that panda feces contains specific bacteria that houses potent effects in the ability to break down plant material that may create biomass as a major new source of “biofuels“. Even better, it isn’t produced from corn and other food sources, but instead from grass, wood chips and crop wastes.

That’s right. The answer may lay in panda poo solving one of science’s hurdles in producing biofuels. Researchers hope this will help expand the use of biofuels in the near future, which will in turn help reduce the dependency on using foreign oil. They also hope it will help out with wildlife conservation.

So why panda poo and no other poo? The researchers explained that the bacteria that is found in the poo from the giant panda is the best for breaking down the difficult and hardy plant material in switch grass, corn stalks, and wood chips. This plant material, lignocellulose, just can’t be defeated by any of poo. And because of this finding, it could help with the development of cellulosic biofuels that is from these tough plant materials so that it doesn’t rely on food crops such as soybeans, corn, and sugar (which are now what is used to make biofuel).

So why does this work so well? Giant pandas have specific bacteria in their digestive system that can easily break down the cellulose in plants and make it into useful nutrients. Bamboo is rich in this cellulose, making up for about 99 percent of their diet. In fact, an adult giant panda eats about 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo each day.

To do the research, the team collected and analyzed the fresh poo of a pair of male and female pandas who were stationed at the Memphis Zoo over the course of a year. They explored and discovered several types of digestive bacteria in the panda poo, including some types that are similarly found in termites (which we know are experts at chewing through wood).

Their studies suggest that bacteria species in these giant pandas may be more efficient at breaking down plant materials than even termite bacteria can. As well, the panda poo may prove to combat this in a way that is better for biofuel manufacturing purposes.

The researchers estimate that under specific conditions these gut bacteria can convert approximately 90 percent of plant biomass into simple sugars. The enzymes that are found in the bacteria are highly active substances which speed up chemical reactions, and are so powerful do not have the need for high heat, harsh acids and high pressures– all of which are currently used in biofuel production processes. Because the current processes for creating biofuel is also time intensive and takes a lot of energy, the panda bacteria is also a quicker and cheaper option.

The scientists are continuing their research by trying to figure out every intestinal bacterium that is found in the giant panda. That way, they can isolate the most powerful digestive enzymes, use them for biofuel production and create them into yeasts. These yeasts can then create the enzymes and be grown on a commercial scale to create the large amounts of biofuel needed.

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.

See the American Chemical Society for more information.


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