Panda poo could help solve world energy crisis, research finds

Bacteria in digestive systems could allow a shift towards fuel from waste plant material

Giant pandas specialise in looking cute, but they may also go down in history as the animals that saved the planet. Their poo contains bacteria that could help solve the world energy crisis.

Pandas eat bamboo and little else, but they thrive on it. Their digestive systems are perfectly designed to deal with this rough stuff, containing bacteria and other substances that break down the tough bamboo fibres to produce sugars. Scientists at the University of Mississippi have identified more than 40 microbes extracted from panda poo that help do this.

The researchers believe these microbes could allow a shift away from biofuels produced from food crops like corn and soya beans to fuels and oils derived from waste plant material instead like husks and stalks.

Pandas Ya Ya and Le Le in the Memphis Zoo are part of this endeavour and they may soon have help from Er Shun and Da Mao, giant pandas based at the Toronto Zoo. Details of the research were presented today at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society underway in Indianapolis, Indiana.


"The giant pandas are contributing their faeces," explained Dr Ashli Brown who heads the research. "We have discovered microbes in panda faeces might actually be a solution to the search for sustainable new sources of energy. 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."

Food plants are used as a source of starch and sugars that can be fermented into alcohol that serves as an alterative to petrol. This means however that prime land and valuable crops needed to feed the world are being used up to support transport.

Waste plant material has sugars too but these are locked up in the plant fibres, lignocellulose material that is difficult to break down. Enter the pandas.

Working with scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison the researchers mined the poo for microbes and found some that can break down the lignocellulose to get sugars for fermentation. They also found microbes mined from the poo that can change the sugars into oils and fats for biodiesel production.

The pandas won’t care but there is a payback for them as well said Prof Brown. “Understanding the relationships between the microbes and the pandas as well as how they get their energy and nutrition is extremely important from a conservation standpoint, as fewer than 2,500 giant pandas are left in the wild and only 200 are in captivity.”

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.