Scientists have been attempting to develop more sustainable sources of energy, but one new possible solution to the energy crisis is surprising: It comes from microbes in the feces of giant pandas.
Pandas eat bamboo and little else, but they thrive on it. Their digestive systems are perfectly designed to deal with this rough stuff, containing bacteria and other substances that break down the tough bamboo fibres to produce sugars. Scientists at the University of Mississippi have identified more than 40 microbes extracted from panda poo that help do this.
The researchers believe these microbes could allow a shift away from biofuels produced from food crops like corn and soya beans to fuels and oils derived from waste plant material instead like husks and stalks.
Ashli Brown, an assistant professor at Mississippi State University, and her team have been studying two giant pandas, Ya Ya and Le Le, at Tennessee´s Memphis Zoo for more than a year. Brown´s previous research found that bacteria found within panda poop has the potential to break down tough plant material for the production of biofuels, sources of energy that come from living organisms. In new research presented at the American Chemical Society´s National Meeting & Exposition, Brown revealed the team has identified 40 specific microbes that could make biofuel production from plant waste easier and cheape
“The giant pandas are contributing their faeces,” explained Dr Ashli Brown who heads the research. “We have discovered microbes in panda faeces 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.”
Food plants are used as a source of starch and sugars that can be fermented into alcohol that serves as an alterative to petrol. This means however that prime land and valuable crops needed to feed the world are being used up to support transport.
Waste plant material has sugars too but these are locked up in the plant fibres, lignocellulose material that is difficult to break down. Enter the pandas.
Working with scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison the researchers mined the poo for microbes and found some that can break down the lignocellulose to get sugars for fermentation. They also found microbes mined from the poo that can change the sugars into oils and fats for biodiesel production.
Lessons of panda
The bacteria manage this conversion process using powerful enzymes, that are able to get the sugars out without needing high pressures, temperatures or acidity. Until now, the biofuels industry has struggled to get useful amounts of sugars at anything except high temperature and pressure. But to turn this research into a working biofuel process, the bacteria producing the enzymes responsible first need to be isolated. The trick would then be to engineer yeasts able to produce those enzymes in bulk. So much more research remains to be done.
In the meantime, the irony of endangered pandas coming to the rescue of mankind casts a new light on issues of conservation and biodiversity. The discovery also teaches a lesson about the importance of biodiversity and preserving endangered animals.