Could the next source of energy be found in an endangered species’ excrement? It may seem farfetched, but as National Geographic reports, scientists at Mississippi State University believe they may have uncovered a secret to sustainable biofuel in a mound of panda feces.
In a quest to find new sources of energy that doesn’t rely on finite resources, many researchers have focused their attention on biofuels. While corn and soybeans are popular options, critics are concerned that using these items would take a toll on the world’s food supply and may still emit too much carbon into the atmosphere. Some think the solution is to break down food waste instead. However, the main obstacle in producing energy from biofuels is how expensive and inefficient the process is.
For that reason, scientists were drawn to pandas due to their diet. While bears are typically carnivorous, pandas sustain themselves on bamboo, a harsh plant that most other creatures would find too difficult to digest. Researchers wanted to learn more about how the animal could handle this process.
Evidently, the answer can be found in the pandas’ poop. Researchers have isolated 40 different microbes that originate from the pandas’ stomachs. These microbes must be strong considering that they tear apart up to 40 pounds of bamboo each day. Moreover, whereas most large animals have multiple stomach chambers and a long digestive tract, pandas have just one chamber and a tiny tract, meaning that the panda microbes must be especially potent.
The goal is to cultivate these microbes in order to break down food waste and create biofuel. The current methods of heating or pressurizing plant waste are not economical, but using microbes to more naturally convert organic materials into energy (as they do in the pandas’ bellies) could be groundbreaking.
This internal panda magic might be good news for a species that even some conservationists are calling to give up on and let go extinct. Although there aren’t enough pandas to poop out a sufficient amount of microbes to generate biofuel, the fact that their bodies may carry the secret for humans to mimic to create a sustainable energy source demonstrates their worth.
“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 to learn from it,” said Ashli Brown, the head researcher in the panda poop investigation. “That underscores the importance of saving endangered and threatened animals.”
Not only does the research give humans an incentive to preserve the pandas, but the newfound knowledge might provide answers to help preserve them, too. Since most panda diseases occur in their stomachs, developing an in depth understanding of how these microbes work could assist humans to keep pandas healthy. With fewer than 2,500 pandas in existence, promoting health and preventing disease in pandas is essential.
Thus far, researchers have examined droppings from Le Le and Ya Ya, a pair of giant pandas residing in the Memphis Zoo. As the project expands, the scientists hope to use stool from Da Mao and Er Shun from the Toronto Zoo, as well.