Pandas at the Memphis Zoo may be contributing to their upkeep soon thanks to research from the Mississippi State University. This week, scientists presented research at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), where they claimed that biofuels could be made from panda poo microbes instead of corn.

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Ashli Brown, a biochemist in MSU’s Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology, and Plant Pathology, has found that “panda poop” – or microbes in panda excrement – breaks down woody materials, which could make it a possible alternative to traditional biofuel production.

According to Brown, these microbes could overcome one of the major challenges to producing biofuels: breaking down the raw plant materials used to make the fuels. From their research, Brown’s team discovered that several species of microbes in panda excrement are able to be replicated and used to process biofuels.

Brown believes that by replicating these microbes, the U.S. could contribute to developing alternative fuels that don’t interfere with food crops and could also save a great deal of money.

“One of the most expensive processes in making biofuels is the pretreatment, where sugar polymers are chemically treated so that they can be used to make ethanol or oil,” Brown said. “If you can insert a microbe that does that naturally and efficiently, production costs for alternative fuels would be cut tremendously.”

“The microbes we found are similar to digestive bacteria found in termite guts, which help termites break down and digest wood,” Brown said.  “However, our studies suggest that the bacteria species in panda intestines may be more efficient at breaking down plant materials than the bacteria species in termites, and may do so in a way that is better for biofuel manufacturing purposes.”

Brown’s colleague, assistant professor Darrell Sparks, said the findings could make a huge impact in Mississippi, a state with abundant forest resources.

“We have plentiful forest resources in the state,” Sparks said. “Developing an economical process to convert that woody biomass to simple sugars would give Mississippi a competitive advantage in the development of biofuels.”

Of course, there are certain problems with basing biofuel production around an endangered species. That is why the study, which is being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, The Memphis Zoological Society, the Mississippi Corn Promotion Board and the Sustainable Energy Research Center at Mississippi State, is also looking at red pandas that also eat bamboo and are more numerous.

+ Mississippi State University


Images via George Lu and Lyndi&Jason