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Panda Poop Could be the Key to Cheap and Efficient Biofuel Production

Posted By Allison Leahy On August 29, 2011 @ 6:22 pm In News,Poo Power!,Renewable Energy | No Comments

 

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Giant Pandas are well-loved for their distinctive appearance and sedentary nature. Now they will receive even greater adoration and attention for their bowel-based [1] contribution to the development of a clean energy future. In a national meeting at the American Chemical Society [2], researchers presented a study identifying panda poop as a source of enzyme-producing bacteria that breaks down plant materials in a way that is useful for biofuel production.


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Corn-based biofuel production has reached 13 million barrels per year, but processing land and energy-intensive food crops such as corn, soybeans, and sugar is costly and often uses environmentally-damaging chemicals [3] or harsh acids. Enzymes are known to perform the same function, but often take more time and have trouble breaking down a majority of the agricultural waste (stalks and husks of plants, wood chips, switchgrass, and corn stover [4]) that also acts as raw material for the biofuels industry. Producing biofuel from this cellulosic-rich biomass is necessary if our aim is to make biofuels an eco-friendly and cost competitive alternative to gasoline.

Inspired by the giant panda’s voracious appetite for bamboo, scientists began to study the fecal matter of giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo. A year of samples indicated that the pandas have a unique ability to convert lignocellulose from plant matter into energy. In fact, gut bacteria of a giant panda can convert 95 percent of the plant’s biomass [5] into simple sugars. This is a marked improvement upon bark beetles [6], termites, and the ruminant stomachs of cattle, which have also contain biomass conversion capable enzymes.

Instead of harvesting the enzyme-rich poop [7] from bamboo forest floors in the mountains of China, the next step will be to sequence the specific gene(s) responsible for the highly-active enzyme. Once isolated, the gene(s) will be put into a yeast and the yeast culture will produce the enzymes capable of digesting and converting biomass on a commercial scale.

This is good news for the the commercial biofuel industry, which is expected to advance rapidly as a result of President Obama [8]‘s recent announcement [9] that the US  Department of Agriculture, Energy, and Navy will invest $510 million in biofuel production by 2014. This discovery gives biofuels another big boost, but it should also serve as a reminder of the importance of biodiversity and the role it plays in innovating technologies, medicines, and materials.

Via American Chemical Society [2]

Images © gill_penny [10], kinshuksunil [11], the mechanical turk [12] via Flickr


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URL to article: http://inhabitat.com/panda-poop-unlocks-the-possibility-of-cheap-and-efficient-biofuel-production/

URLs in this post:

[1] bowel-based: http://inhabitat.com/panda-paper-set-is-made-from-poo/

[2] American Chemical Society: http://portal.acs.org/portal/acs/corg/content

[3] chemicals: http://inhabitat.com/how-to-green-clean-your-bathroom-without-toxic-chemicals/

[4] corn stover: http://inhabitat.com/corn-waste-transformed-into-versatile-building-material/

[5] biomass: http://inhabitat.com/tag/biomass-power/

[6] bark beetles: http://earthandindustry.com/2011/08/fungus-may-be-the-key-to-cheaper-more-efficient-biofuel/

[7] enzyme-rich poop: http://inhabitat.com/toilet-made-from-poo-transforms-excrement-into-energy/

[8] Obama: http://inhabitat.com../obamas-state-of-the-union-pushes-green-but-will-congress-budge/

[9] announcement: http://globalaginvesting.com/news_story.php?id=24796

[10] gill_penny: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gillpenney/3423954802/sizes/l/in/photostream/

[11] kinshuksunil: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kinshuksunil/5465803517/sizes/l/in/photostream/

[12] the mechanical turk: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eabod/

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