Do pandas hold the key to reducing US reliance on foreign oil?

Pandas have all kinds of talents, like looking adorable, dozing off for no reason, and looking tiny next to Shaq.

But pandas are also pretty big on eating and pooping, and, by extension, digesting raw plant materials. It's this last skill, in particular, that has chemists interested in what pandas can teach us about next-generation biofuel production.

Scientists have known for some time that pandas harbor beneficial stomach bugs that help them process and derive nutrients from the tough, hard-to-digest cellulose found in bamboo. But how these microbes aid in this process (let alone how they might be used in an industrial setting for the production of biofuels), has long been overlooked. Until now.

In a presentation delivered yesterday at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, scientist Ashli Brown revealed that the stomach bacteria found in pandas is particularly efficient at breaking down a plant material known as lignocellulose. Lignocellulose is typically found in switch grass, corn stalks, and wood chips ā€” resources that could help shift the biofuel industry away from consuming so-called "precious food crops" like corn, soybeans, and sugar.

Brown's findings are based on over 12 months of hands-on study of fresh panda poo, courtesy of a couple of pandas at the Memphis Zoo. Her findings suggest that many of the microbes she's discovered resemble those found in termites, which are notoriously good at churning through hard-to-digest wood fibers.

Our studies suggest that bacteria species in the panda intestine may be more efficient at breaking down plant materials than termite bacteria, and may do so in a way that is better for biofuel manufacturing purposes.

In theory, the unprecedented efficiency of the bacteria found in panda's stomachs could obviate the use of precious food crops and present-day biofuel production processes that require high heat, harsh acids, and high pressure treatments. By identifying all the intestinal bacteria in the panda gut, Brown says scientists could pick out the best bugs of the lot and genetically engineer yeasts that could carry out this conversion process as efficiently as the pandas do.

Brown says she thinks her research could help cut dependency of foreign oil, but also hopes it will reinforce the importance of wildlife conservation:

The discovery also teaches a lesson about the importance of biodiversity and preserving endangered animals...Animals and plants are a major source of medicines and other products that people depend on. When we lose them to extinction, we may lose potential sources of these products.

Via The American Chemical Society's Fall 2011 National Meeting & Exhibition
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