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Biofuel boffins pimp panda poo

Breaking down the tough stuff

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Pandas are famous for a restricted and difficult diet: the bamboo they favour takes a lot of digesting to yield enough energy to keep them going.

Naturally enough, then, the tricks that the panda has evolved to survive turn out to be quite potent at breaking down plant material – and according to the American Chemical Society, that could make them an unlikely hero in the development of biofuels.

Dr Ashli Brown of Mississippi State University reported to the American Chemical Society’s national meeting that bacteria present in panda droppings could help pave the way to using “difficult” plants like grasses, wood chips and waste.

In particular, Dr Brown says the bacteria are promising in breaking down the very tough lignocellulose, a combination of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. If high-lignocellulose materials could be used as biofuel feedstock, it would reduce the industry’s reliance on food crops.

Examining the panda droppings, Dr Brown and her colleagues found that some of the bacteria they identified are similar to those found in termites.

“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,” Dr Brown said.

Under some conditions, the group’s studies found that the bacteria can convert as much as 95 percent of plant biomass into simple sugars. Their enzymes are so efficient that they could operate without the high heat, acids or high pressures now used in biofuel production (which, along the way, gives better yield with lower energy inputs).

Dr Brown hopes to put the genes responsible for this efficient digestion into yeasts, which could be grown on a commercial scale to provide enzymes for the biofuel industry. ®

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