Scientists may have found a clue to producing next-generation biofuels in one of the most unlikeliest of places: panda poop (yuck). Although they have long known that the guts of giant panda contained bacteria with enzymes adept at breaking down the 20-40 lbs. of bamboo an adult eats daily, researcher Ashli Brown, Ph.D. from Mississippi State University found that this bacteria may also break down grass, wood chips and crop wastes in the way necessary to best tap these biomass resources as a major new source of biofuels.

Brown and her colleagues spent a year collecting and analyzing the fresh feces of a pair of male and female pandas at the Memphis Zoo. The team found that bacteria from the giant panda can break down the super-tough plant material known as lignocellulose in switch grass, corn stalks and wood chips. Brown estimated that under certain conditions, the panda gut bacteria can convert about 95 % of plant biomass into simple sugars, without the need for high heat, harsh acids and high pressures currently used in biofuel production processes. This  advance could speed the development of biofuels that don’t rely on food crops such as corn, soybeans and sugar.

image via Pixics

Once Brown and her team isolate the most powerful digestive enzymes for biofuel production, scientists could use well-established genetic engineering technology to put the genes that produce those enzymes into yeasts, which can produce the enzymes a commercial scale for the biofuels industry. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, The Memphis Zoological Society, the Mississippi Corn Promotion Board, and the Southeastern Research Center at Mississippi State.

The discovery also highlights the importance of preserving endangered animals for the sake of biodiversity. Less than 2,500 giant pandas remain in the wild, and about 200 are in captivity.

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