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Surprising Science

One More Reason To Save The Pandas: Biofuel

The microbes and enzymes in pandas’ digestive systems have a unique ability to break down plant waste. Collecting it from the animals’ feces could lead to faster and cheaper biofuel production.

What’s the Latest Development?

Mississippi State University scientists think they may have found a way to protect the dwindling panda population and increase green fuel production at the same time. By collecting feces samples from two pandas at the Memphis Zoo, they have identified over 40 different species of gut microbes to date. These microbes, or the enzymes they need to do their job inside the panda’s digestive system, could be used to break down plant waste in an industrial setting, possibly leading to faster, cheaper biofuel production. The team presented their research at an American Chemical Society meeting earlier this week.

What’s the Big Idea?

A biofuel created from an edible crop, such as corn, impacts the food supply much more dramatically than a biofuel created from waste material, such as corn cobs. However, the search is on to find more efficient and economical ways to process that material. Team member Candace Williams says that pandas are unique “in that they are physiologically like a carnivore, but they eat a herbivorous diet” — to the tune of 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo every day per adult. In addition, they have relatively short digestive tracts, which means the bacteria inside has to be pretty powerful in order to break down the bamboo quickly.

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Read it at National Geographic


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