Pandas have been subject to no shortage of criticism of late. For their challenged abilities at reproducing and the sheer cost of keeping them alive with an adequate bamboo supply, one writer calls them "the world's most useless creatures." David Plotz describes them as "nature's couch potato," with their entire lives spent "eating bamboo and sleeping."
Well, panda haters, watch out. Pandas are about to do something, and it's not just eating bamboo. And it's possible it might be prove to be of economic value?
A team of scientists have begun studying whether certain microbes in panda feces might be the key to a more efficient way to produce biofuels. And it all has to do with panda's dietary decisions: All bamboo, all the time.
Most of the nutrients found in bamboo are locked away in tough substances known as cellulose and lignin. Liberating those nutrients is an energy-intensive process that involves high temperatures and extreme pressures when carried out in a laboratory or by an industrial process. Indeed, it is the cost of doing so that makes producing biofuel out of cellulose- and lignin-rich materials, like discarded corn (maize) cobs and husks, less financially viable than generating biofuel directly from more readily digestible corn kernels. The kernels, however, can be used to feed people whereas the cobs and husks cannot. So a process that is able efficiently to turn what is a waste product into fuel could have great potential.
Given their diet, Dr Brown [a researcher at Mississippi State University] knew that giant pandas had to have legions of microbes in their gut that were strong enough to break cellulose and lignin down. If it was possible to identify those microbes and find the enzymes within them they might be used to improve biofuel production. So, Dr Brown and her colleagues got to work analysing piles of panda faeces for the presence of RNA strands belonging to the microbes.
Working with researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Brown has been studying the feces of two pandas at the Memphis Zoo, Ya Ya and Li Li. So far her team has "identified bacteria that break down lignocellulose into simple sugars, which can be fermented into bioethanol," according to a press release from the American Chemical Society. "They also found bacteria that can take those sugars and transform them into oils and fats for biodiesel production."
Those microbes, as the Economist explains, do have the potential for some real value, for taking products that currently end up as landfill and turning them into biofuels. Yes, it's hard to believe, but pandas might just be about to help us do a task more efficiently. Really.
The researchers are also looking at whether red pandas, which also eat bamboo, may have similar microbes. Which means that Rusty, the famously-escaping resident of the National Zoo, may not just be a red panda on the lam but a scientific marvel.