An adult giant panda eats from 20 - 40 pounds of bamboo a day: image via justanimalpic.com
Giant pandas are still very rare, so it's not likely that their poop
will be used as a substitute for gasolene, but the chemical analysis of panda
poop has provided new information about the microbes that assist pandas
in digesting some of the roughest roughage in nature -
lignocellulose - and that information could certainly lead to a
biofuel that is much more efficient than any biomass fuels that are being produced currently.
Lignocellulose is present in switch grass, corn stalks, wood chips and, yes, bamboo - all cheap, non-food sources of fuel supply. But breaking this fibrous stuff down?
Researchers at Mississippi University studied the bacteria in the feces of male and female pandas for more than a year; after all, pandas eat from 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo a day! They found several types of digestive bacteria, including one that is similar to those found in termites, the great wood eaters.
“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 Ashi Brown, study co-author, who presented this information at the 242nd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society. “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.”
Brown's intention is to identify every intestinal bacterium in the panda's digestive system, isolate the most powerful enzymes, and use genetic engineering technology to grow large amounts of the enzymes from yeast. The enzymes would then be used to break down the lignocellulose for biofuels.
What's the hurry? Well, since you ask, current biofuel production requires the use of extreme heat, harsh acids, and high pressures - all energy intensive and expensive. The panda poop bacteria has the potential to break down even tougher materials than are used to make biofuels now - non-crop materials - without using any of those processes. Cleaner, cheaper.
Source: American Chemical Society via RDMag