Very Important Panda Poop Research Powers On

It’s been a few years since Ashli Brown and her colleagues began combing through panda poop and got their first indications that the stuff might harbor a renewable energy breakthrough.  Now the reasearchers are sounding even more confident in the possibilities.

They reported from the American Chemical Society meeting in Indianapolis this week that the feces of everyone’s favorite, rare zoo animal, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, “might actually be a solution to the search for sustainable sources of energy.”

panda poop power

Panda at the Memphis Zoo (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, first a quick word on what this isn’t: This isn’t a manure digester project like the Toronto Zoo’s ZooShare plan to  build a biogas plant consisting of a primary digester, two storage tanks and a 500-kilowatt generator, all fed by the zoo’s manure (as well as 12,000 tons of local food waste, including fat, oil and grease).

Instead, this is all about the single-cell organisms that have been found in droppings of Ya Ya and Le Le, giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo.

Brown, working with students at Mississippi State University, first reported in 2011 that these bacteria — which, before they emerge in the poop, of course live in the panda gut, where they break down lignocellulose material  — might also be able to break down grass, wood chips and crop wastes. This could make the microbes a candidate for use in producing cellulosic ethanol, which is sorely sought as an alternative to today’s biofuels based on food crops. The gnarly nature of lignocellulose has made such fuels expensive and difficult to produce.

Well now Brown & Co. say they’ve identified more than 40 microbes living in the guts of giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo that could be useful in biofuel production. And they’re saying they’ve found panda bacteria that can take the sugars produced in that initial breaking-down process and transform them into oils and fats for biodiesel production. “Brown said that either the bacteria themselves or the enzymes in them that actually do the work could be part of the industrial process,” according to the release put out by the American Chemical Society.

All very exciting — but one thing the release didn’t say is if anyone in the biofuel production business is putting these microbes to the test. That would seem to be the next logical step, no?

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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