Photograph by Keren Su, Corbis
Published September 10, 2013Can panda poop help power the greener vehicles of tomorrow? It just might, scientists say, by yielding microbes that efficiently turn plant waste into biofuel—and the research just might help protect pandas at the same time. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Biofuel.")
"We have discovered microbes in panda feces might actually be a solution to the search for sustainable new sources of energy," Mississippi State University biochemist Ashli Brown, who led the study, told attendees at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Tuesday. "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. That underscores the importance of saving endangered and threatened animals."
Biofuels made from corn, soybeans, and other edible crops cause concerns over their potential impact on food supply and prices. Some even argue that such biofuels ultimately may produce even more carbon emissions than petroleum. (See related coverage: "Biofuels at a Crossroads.")
Waste plant material, such as corn cobs and discarded stalks, long has been eyed as a rich, renewable source of biofuel feedstock. But in order for cellulosic biofuel to truly go mainstream, it must be transformed into ethanol efficiently and economically. That's where panda stomachs could give producers a valuable head start. (Vote in poll: "Are Biofuels Worth the Investment?")
"These microbes may be very well suited to break down this biomass," said co-researcher Candace Williams, who originally developed the study several years ago while working on her Master's degree. "That's what they are doing in the gut of the panda with all of the bamboo the animal eats."
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