MSU professor finds pandas may aid biofuel production

Thursday, September 22, 2011
By: Laci Kyles

A Mississippi State University assistant professor is looking to "panda poop," or microbes in panda excrement that breakdown woody materials, as a possible means to biofuel production.


Ashli Brown, a biochemist in MSU's Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology, and Plant Pathology, recently discovered that microbes in panda feces are strong enough to break down the toughest plant materials. According to Brown, panda poop might help overcome one of the major challenges to producing biofuels: breaking down the raw plant materials used to make the fuels.

The findings have garnered national attention as the reproduction of these microbes could contribute to developing alternative fuels that don't interfere with food crops and could also save a great deal of money.

"One of the most expensive processes in making biofuels is the pretreatment, where sugar polymers are chemically treated so that they can be used to make ethanol or oil," Brown said. "If you can insert a microbe that does that naturally and efficiently, production costs for alternative fuels would be cut tremendously."

Brown and her colleagues, including MSU graduate student Candace Williams, conducted a 14-month study of the giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo. While the initial focus of the study was to observe the overall health and nutrition of the pandas, Williams and Brown found several species of microbes that can break down woody plant material that is generally difficult to digest.

"The microbes we found are similar to digestive bacteria found in termite guts, which help termites break down and digest wood," Brown said. "However, our studies suggest that the bacteria species in panda intestines may be more efficient at breaking down plant materials than the bacteria species in termites, and may do so in a way that is better for biofuel manufacturing purposes."

Under certain conditions, panda fecal bacteria can convert 95 percent of plant biomass into simple sugars, Brown said.

"The enzymes in the bacteria speed up chemical reactions, eliminating the current system of high heat, harsh acids and high pressures used to produce biofuels," Brown said. "Bacteria would also be a more energy-efficient way to turn materials such as switchgrass, corn stalks and wood chips into fuel."

Brown's colleague, assistant professor Darrell Sparks, said the finding has the potential to make a huge impact in Mississippi, a state with abundant forest resources.

"We have plentiful forest resources in the state," Sparks said. "Developing an economical process to convert that woody biomass to simple sugars would give Mississippi a competitive advantage in the development of biofuels."

Brown and Sparks, both scientists in the university's Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, are now working on identifying as many bacteria from the pandas' intestines as possible and figuring out which ones are best at converting bamboo into sugars.

"We are looking for the most powerful digestive enzymes," Brown said. "We could then program yeast cells to make these enzymes."

Williams, a doctoral student in molecular biology, said the research illustrates the importance of conserving and protecting plants and animals.

The giant panda, whose home range is south-central China, is considered an endangered species. On its website, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports fewer than 2,500 mature giant pandas in the wild.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, The Memphis Zoological Society, the Mississippi Corn Promotion Board and the Sustainable Energy Research Center at Mississippi State.

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