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Study: Panda Poo May Be Coup for Future of Biofuels

In panda poo could be the future of biofuel.

That’s the conclusion of research presented Tuesday at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Indianapolis suggesting that bacteria in panda feces could help make biofuel production more efficient.

Researchers are trying to figure out how to produce ethanol from plants or parts of plants that are not used to make food because U.S. ethanol production from corn and soybeans has raised concerns that using food crops for fuel could rise food prices and lead to food shortages.

Credit: The National Science Foundation

Corn stalks, corn cobs and other tough plant material not used for food may be a better source of ethanol, but current processing techniques are costly and energy intensive, often requiring a pre-treatment process using acids and high heat, said study lead researcher Ashli Brown, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Mississippi State University.

Today, in order to turn switchgrass and corn cobs into ethanol, the biomass has to be treated to break down tough lignocellulose material, which is extremely energy intensive to process.

That’s where the panda poo comes in.

Brown’s team has found more than 40 different microbes living in the guts of giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo that could help decompose the corn cobs and other tough plant materials so it can be more easily and efficiently processed to make ethanol.

The study is using the feces from giant pandas Ya Ya and Le Le. Pandas, which have a short digestive tract, feast on a diet of tough bamboo. Bacteria with extremely potent enzymes break down the woody bamboo efficiently and quickly.

“The time from eating to defecation is comparatively short in the panda, so their microbes have to be very efficient to get nutritional value out of the bamboo,” Brown said. “And efficiency is key when it comes to biofuel production — that’s why we focused on the microbes in the giant panda.”

Brown’s team found the specific bacteria that break down lignocellulose into simple sugars, which can be fermented into bioethanol, and they found other bacteria that can transform those sugars into oils and fats for biodiesel production.

The microbes in pandas’ guts are accessible via their feces and can easily be cultured, Brown said.

Harvey Blanch, professor of chemical engineering at the University of California-Berkeley, said he is skeptical that panda gut bacteria could be produced on an industrial scale to increase the efficiency of biomass processing for fuel.

“There’ve been a number of studies like this in the past,” he said. “One was bacterial enzymes from termite hind guts. Now we’ve got pandas. We’re a very long way from industrial applications.”

Blanch said researchers will have to prove that enzymes from panda gut bacteria are more efficient in breaking down plant matter than the industrial enzymes produced from fungus that are currently used in biofuel production. Next, researchers would have to prove that panda gut bacteria could be produced at a price point low enough to be commercially attractive.

“The opportunity to commercialize is just not going to happen,” he said.

Brown said the researchers originally approached the panda gut microbes to find out how they were able to release enough nutrients to sustain the metabolism of a bear that lacks the enzymes itself to break down bamboo.

With fewer than 3,000 pandas remaining today, learning that a highly endangered species has a tremendous value for humans only helps in trying to save the species from extinction and illustrates why all species are important, Brown said.

“I think there is urgency,” he said. “It just aids to the conservation effort.”

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Comments

By dan_in_illinois
on September 10th, 2013

“Researchers are trying to figure out how to produce ethanol from plants or parts of plants that are not used to make food because U.S. ethanol production from corn and soybeans has raised concerns that using food crops for fuel could rise food prices and lead to food shortages.”

Or they could just abandon this whole ridiculous ethanol idea and use the natural gas that is now so abundant in the U.S.

Reply to this comment

By Cheapfoody (San Clemente, CA 92672)
on September 11th, 2013

Panda’s, Termites, Koala Bears - any critter that EATS fibrous plant materials for their survival will have enzymes and bacteria that thrive in warm- moist - dark - fibrous-plant-chewed -goo environments. The bacteria evolved right along side the critters.

Darwin was right you know.

E V O L U T I O N - you don’t have be be a rocket scientist to figure this stuff out.

Reply to this comment

By NorsKenR (Trooper, PA 19403)
on September 13th, 2013

Blanch could turn out to be right about this not being commercially exploitable through industrialization. Sometimes in nature such situations are symbiotic. The pandas are clearly dependent upon the microbes but there may be some unique contribution made by panda physiology or biochemistry to the microbes’ well-being or efficiency.

Reply to this comment

By Gra (Houston, Tx. 77006)
on September 15th, 2013

Sounds like somebody is still trying to avoid the algae topic.

Reply to this comment

By Kelly (Ticonderoga NY)
on September 15th, 2013

Sounds like out of the box thinking. I like it; anything to get us off the habit of raping the planet for energy. Natural gas? Fracking concerns have not been addressed well enough in my opinion, and to run into it with blatant disregard is childish.

Reply to this comment

By Kent Otho Doering (Munich/Bavaria Germany/80796)
on September 19th, 2013

That “Panda Poo” bacteria also looks valuable as yeast in heavy cellulose breakdown systems for agrarian region - bio-gas digester- - power and heat systems. 

Sawdust and chopped corn stalks did not, and do not, break down well in normal mixed septic tank sludge, straw and cow, pig, and poulty manure methane recapture systems building out in Europe. It will be worthwhile to experiment and add cultivated “Panda Poo” bacteria added to “septic tank and straw & cow manure”  methane generation and recapture tanks.  Normal bacteria do not break down heavy cellulose, which made it ill fit for methane bio-gas generation up to now.

Thanks for the tip. It has been passed on in Germany.  An Technical University “Agrarian Research” center will obstain Panda Poo from a German zoo, and cultivate it, adding it to an agrarian manure methane generation system- and lace the mix with chopped corn stalks, and saw mill saw dust.
If the Panda Poo bacterior breaks the heavy cellulose down in the paddle digesters- generating more bio-gas with it- this discovery wil change the nature of agrarian bio-gas as the bacteria will be able to convert the heavy cellulose to gas.

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