The microbes in the guts of these gentle giants could make alternative fuel production so much easier.
Well, guess what, panda haters: In regard to that last point, panda dung could be the very thing that saves civilization from wars, famines, and doom.
Bear with me here. As the planet creeps closer and closer to depleting its petroleum stocks, scientists are scrambling to find alternative fuels to keep machines humming and governments secure. One promising energy source is ethanol made from converted organic matter. Manufacturers can whip up big vats of this vital fluid by fermenting crops grown around the world, such as corn, sugarcane, and soybeans.
There's a problem with that strategy, though: It makes food more scarce and drives up the prices at the grocery store. Refineries can use inedible or "garbage" organic matter to make ethanol, like switchgrass and corn cobs, but doing so involves more expensive and tedious methods. That's because the stringy, tough lignocellulose in this unpalatable stuff cannot be fermented, and must undergo conversion processes that can involve high temperatures, high pressures, and slow and unstable catalysts.
Enter the giant panda, or rather what comes out of the giant panda. Evolution has honed these monochrome mammoths into four-legged garbage disposals for bamboo. Their guts are teeming with microbes that attack woody cellulose and break it down in no time flat. If biofuel makers had that kind of technology at their fingertips, turning corn husks and wood chips into ethanol would be so much easier. Look in shame over at your future providers of cheap fuel, antipandaists, and mutter: I'm sorry.
Scientists are already poking around in panda poo to try to understand how its myriad possibilities. A joint team from universities in Mississippi and Wisconsin collected fecal samples from giant pandas in the Memphis Zoo, Ya Ya and Le Le, and subjected the stuff to a barrage of lab tests. This week, one of the scientists involved – the aptly named Ashli Brown – gave the world an update at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Indianapolis.
Bacteria in a panda's digestive system are ideally suited to destroy cellulose, turning it into sugars and fats that are great for biofuel production, according to Brown:
Not only do pandas digest a diet of bamboo, but [they] have a short digestive tract that requires bacteria with unusually potent enzymes for breaking down lignocellulose. "The time from eating to defecation is comparatively short in the panda, so their microbes have to be very efficient to get nutritional value out of the bamboo," Brown said. "And efficiency is key when it comes to biofuel production – that's why we focused on the microbes in the giant panda."
That is why it's so important that humans strive to preserve these noble, crapping beasts, she added, because there could be as few as 1,600 left in the wild. "It's amazing that here we have an endangered species that's almost gone from the planet, yet there's still so much we have yet to learn from it."
To learn more about it, the researchers next plan to analyze the feces of red pandas at the Memphis Zoo, and following that the manure of two giant pandas in Toronto, Er Shun and Da Mao.