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.
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 on Tuesday, Brown revealed the team has identified 40 specific microbes that could make biofuel production from plant waste easier and cheaper.
"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," Brown said in a statement. "That underscores the importance of saving endangered and threatened animals."
Many biofuels, such as ethanol, are currently created from corn, soybeans and sugarcane because they are easier to break down. But some are concerned that using edible crops for fuel production could lead to higher food prices or shortages of food.
Biofuels can also be made from nonfood items such as vegetable oil and animal fats, but current methods for breaking down non-food plant material (stalks, stems and cobs) are expensive and require pretreatments that use heat and high pressure or acids, according to Brown. But the bacteria Brown and her team discovered do that on their own.
The powerful microbes found in panda feces have the potential to break down tougher nonfood plant materials found in corn cobs and stalks due to the "unusually potent" enzymes they use to gather nutritional value from bamboo during the short trip through a panda's digestive tract, according to the study.
Those enzymes break down lignocellulose, a material also found in other plant material not used for food, such as corn stalks and cobs.
And aside from their roles in energy production, Brown said the microbes could lend important insight into how the pandas' digestive systems work. This is important, she said, because many of the diseases the endangered animals get impact their digestive systems.
"Understanding the relationships between the microbes and the pandas, as well as how they get their energy and nutrition, is extremely important from a conservation standpoint, as fewer than 2,500 giant pandas are left in the wild and only 200 are in captivity," Brown said.