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The Secret to Better Biofuels May Lie in Panda Poop

Microbes in the panda’s guts might help make biofuels cheaper

(Jenny E. Ross/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Everybody poops, but panda feces might one day help fuel cars. A group of Belgian scientists believe that panda poop might contain clues to creating new and cheaper biofuels, thanks to their taste for bamboo.

"We can look for new enzymes which could be used to degrade tough biomass," Korneel Rabaey, head of the Department of Biochemical and Microbial Technology at Ghent University tells Robert-Jan Bartunek for Reuters.

While pandas have the digestive system of a carnivor, they have somehow managed to adapt that system digestive to extract nutrients from bamboo, an extremely tough and fibrous plant. Now, Rabaey and his colleagues want to examine the microbiome of the panda’s bowels in search of microbes that could help researchers find new ways to generate biofuels from similar plants, like corn stalks, Bartunek writes.

"We can also go back to the animal and understand why it is eating only certain kinds and parts of the bamboo," Rabaey tells Bartunek.

Rabaey isn’t a stranger to finding ways to turn feces into fuel. In 2013, he and his colleague Bruce Logan developed a method for increasing the voltage of fuel cells with heat produced by microbes found in wastewater treatment plants, Jeffrey Marlow wrote for Wired at the time.

This isn’t the first time researchers have looked to giant pandas for potential advances in refining biofuels from tough plants. Since 2011 Ashli Brown, a researcher at Mississippi State University, has examined the digestive tracts of two pandas at the Memphis Zoo for clues on how their intestines manage to break down such a tough plant in a short amount of time, Natasha Gelling wrote for Smithsonian Magazine in 2013.

“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 told Gelling at the time. “And efficiency is key when it comes to biofuel production—that’s why we focused on the microbes in the giant panda.”

While corn ethanol is one of the most popular biofuels on the market, it comes with a significant array of problems. Processing the plants for fuel is extremely difficult with current technology, requiring a enough corn to feed a person for an entire year just to fill the gas tank of an SUV, Gelling writes. But because pandas have such a short digestive tract, they have to process a massive volume of bamboo quickly in order for them to get enough nutrition, meaning they might rely on plant-eating microbes to help their guts do the heavy lifting. And it seems to have some merit: as of 2013, Brown has identified 40 different species of microbes that could potentially make biofuel processing more efficient, according to a statement from the American Chemical Society.

However, other scientists are skeptical that the panda’s guts will yield a magic bullet for the biofuel industry. According to a study by researchers at China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, pandas not only lack genetic adaptations for digesting plants, but also lack gut microbes that are commonly found in herbivores, Hannah Devlin writes for The Guardian.

While pandas may not have evolved to match their diets like other species, Rabaey and Brown believe there still might be evidence in their intestines for new ways to make better biofuels.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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