It’s not everyday you hear about the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). But scientists there have just unveiled a study that suggests panda excrement contains bacteria that can potently break down plant material to produce biofuels not from corn and sugarcane but from grass, wood chips, crop wastes and other biomass outside of the food chain. A breakthrough of some kind is needed to kickstart the next generation of biofuels. This news could lead to that turning point. A press release here says it best.
Scientists have long known that giant pandas — like termites and cattle — have bacteria in their digestive systems to break down the cellulose in plants into nutrients. Bamboo constitutes about 99 percent of the giant panda’s diet in the wild. An adult may eat 20-40 pounds of bamboo daily — leaves stems, shoots and all. Until the energy crunch fostered interest in biofuels, however, scientists never thought to parse out exactly what microbes in the giant panda gastrointestinal system were involved in digestion.
Brown and colleagues, including graduate student Candace Williams, collected and analyzed the fresh feces of a pair of male and female pandas at the Memphis Zoo for over a year. They identified several types of digestive bacteria in the panda feces, including some that are similar to those found in termites, which are renowned for their ability to digest wood.
“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,” said Brown, who is with Mississippi State University.
So there you have it. What is considered one of the cutest animals in the world (even though they may be fierce out in nature) may prove to have dung just as worthy of our attention. Let’s see DreamWorks work that into one of their Kung Fu Panda movies.
For the scientists out there, here is the technical explanation from the abstract:
Lignocellulosic biomass is a renewable resource that can be used for biofuel production with the assistance of cellulolytic anaerobic organisms from fecal material. The ability of fecal material to degrade was shown by the treatment of biomass with giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) feces, indicating that gut flora may reduce biomass. In our study, eight bacterial groups were enumerated monthly over a fourteen-month sampling of the giant pandas to characterize the gastrointestinal flora. Colony forming units per gram fecal material for Bacteroides spp. ranged in the male and female panda from 102 to 104, values for Clostridium spp. ranged from 102 to 105. The previously unidentified Bacteroides spp. in the giant panda and Clostridium spp. may be useful in the degradation of lignocellulosic biomass and its conversion to biofuels.