Panda poop from Memphis Zoo could help make better biofuels

mbya2.jpg Ya Ya and Le Le made a potentially key contribution to a biofuel future in a study reported this week at a meeting in Denver of the American Chemical Society.

Two giant pandas in the Memphis Zoo have dropped researchers a gift. Studies of the pandas' poop show that their gut microbes break down bamboo efficiently -- a trick that humans could co-opt to turn woody plant material into alternative energy sources.

Pandas are able to extract nutrients from woody bamboo despite having a one-chambered stomach, but what little plumbing there is happens to be packed with bacteria wielding powerful digestive enzymes. The next step is isolating these enzymes in reactors to break down the plant material cellulose into hydrogen or methane for energy.

Even in the service of science, working with animal poop seems like a thankless task. But to hear the researchers tell it, panda poop at least isn't so bad:

Because all the bamboo comes out looking like hay, panda poop "is probably the most pleasant fecal material to work with," (Mississippi State University biochemist and research leader Ashli) Brown says. "Candace and I have worked with other poo, and we can assure you it has a fairly pleasant smell associated with it."

PICTURED: Female panda Ya Ya munches on bamboo at the Memphis Zoo.

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