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Panda poop may provide basis of new biofuels

By Tim Sandle     Sep 15, 2013 in Science
Giant pandas Ya Ya and Le Le, located at the Memphis Zoo, could provide a solution for biofuel production. Scientists are searching the feces from the pandas for useful microbes.
Scientists have been examining the feces of giant pandas Ya Ya and Le Le and they have discovered microbes in panda feces that might provide a solution to the search for sustainable new sources of energy. So far 40 different bacteria have been identified as residing in the guts of the pandas.
There are different ways by which biofuels can be created. These are first-generation biofuels, that are made from the sugars and vegetable oils found in arable crops; and second-generation biofuels manufactured from various types of biomass (plant material).
To produce a biofuel, this involves the application of an enzyme, polysaccharides (sugar polymers) that make up the bulk of wood and paper have to be broken down into simple sugars. These are then fermented to produce liquid biofuels.
Considerable research in the U.S. has been directed to using corn, soybeans and other food crops to produce ethanol. The major concern here is that vegetation grown for food is being diverted for fuel. As an alternative, corn stalks, corn cobs and other plant material not used for food production would be better sources of ethanol. The problem here is that the bacteria required to breakdown these hardy types of plant material have yet to be found. This is why scientists have turned to bamboo munching pandas: the panda can digest the types of heavier vegetation that other animals cannot. This is because the bacteria contain the powerful enzymes needed.
Bamboo constitutes about 99 percent of the giant panda's diet in the wild. An adult may eat 20-40 pounds of bamboo daily -- leaves stems, shoots and all.
The research into panda feces and microbes was presented at the recent 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The project is led by Ashli Brown of Mississippi State University.
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