Scientists have long known that bacteria in the digestive systems of giant pandas are particularly effective at breaking down cellulose in plants into nutrients, as tough-to-digest bamboo constitutes about 99 percent of a giant panda's diet in the wild.
However, until the energy crunch raised interest in biofuels, there was little interest in determining exactly what microbes were involved in panda digestion.
"Who would have guessed that 'panda poop' might help solve one of the major hurdles to producing biofuels, which is optimizing the breakdown of the raw plant materials used to make the fuels?" study co-author Ashli Brown. said "We hope our research will help expand the use of biofuels in the future and help cut dependency on foreign oil. We also hope it will reinforce the importance of wildlife conservation."
Brown estimated the panda gut bacteria can, under certain conditions, convert about 95 percent of plant biomass into simple sugars, using bacteria enzymes so powerful they can eliminate the need for high heat, harsh acids and high pressures currently used in biofuel production processes.
Brown and colleagues reported their research at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver.
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