Mad Science: Panda poop power

Delving into the bowels of the reports that panda poo could be used as a biofuel, poo-powered DeLorean time machines are only around the corner, writes Michael O’Sullivan

Yes, they’ve officially lost it. Pack it all in scientists; you’ve researched all that’s necessary. Desperate for something new to explore the intricate properties of, American scientists have been seen slogging their way through piles of bear droppings in the hope of saving humanity.

What is the reason for this bizarre and unsettling quest into the, if you’ll pardon the pun, bowels of the unexplored you ask? Biofuel is the answer. That stuff that was supposed to use old oil from the deep fat fryer to power our vehicles. Past experiments have looked into the viability of algae and household waste as alternative fuel sources, but poo is set to take centre stage.

Research recently undertaken at Mississippi State University stared intently into the depths of panda poo to search for answers to the problem. Biofuel used to be a big deal; the Green Party wanted all of our cars to run on liquid seeds and the world rejoiced at the advent of biodiesel. No more fighting over oil was the sentiment. As you can all see, that worked out wonderfully well.

Biofuel, while great in theory, has hit a few snags. In the last year, the earth’s population has reached dizzying heights, surpassing seven billion a few months ago. The argument for biofuel has since been relegated to the end of everyone’s in-trays.

The issue is this: if we have barely enough crops to feed ourselves, why should we spare valuable crop land to grow the plants necessary for biodiesel production? Biofuel is not immediately essential to our survival as a species after all.

This is where panda poo comes in. See, there are certain parts of the crops we produce that we can’t digest, such as maize stalks and corn husks. The reason for this is the fact they contain chemicals called cellulose and lignin, two very tough molecules found in pretty much all plants. They are the chief reason why your sweet corn likes to pay you unwanted visits in your toilet bowl.

Pandas however, are known for dieting only on bamboo, which is very high in both cellulose and lignin. Staring at the dark and lumpy consistency of their faeces should give us some clue as to the efficiency of their guts, as the bamboo politely exits without waving hello in a colourful and obvious fashion.

They are able to digest these tough materials, so the aptly named Dr. Ashli Brown of Mississippi State University decided to use them as a starting point for her idea. If pandas can break down such strong plant matter as that of the bamboo, there must be some clue within their digestive system as to how it’s done.

If it were possible to break down cellulose and lignin to form biofuel, there would be no need to fight over crop space anymore. The inedible products of the crop growing process could be used to make fuel, and though this method is more costly than growing fields of rapeseed, it leaves farmers open to use their fields to grow other, more immediately necessary crops, without compromising biofuel production.

In order to discover how it is that pandas break down their tough bamboo diet, Dr. Brown examined their poo, which contained trace amounts of bacterial RNA. Her logic was that any bacteria present in the pandas’ digestive system would surely be of great assistance to the process of breaking down plant matter.

Using the trace amounts of RNA she discovered within the excrement, she backtracked, figuring out which bacterial strains contained the particular RNA strands present in the poo.

From here, she selected a variety of bacteria that contained the correct genetic material. These were each tested to measure their ability to digest cellulose and lignin. This resulted in Dr. Brown being able to isolate 17 bacterial species that could digest cellulose and six that could digest lignin.

These bacteria readily process plant matter into the type of sugars needed to create biofuel, converting around 65.4% of what they are presented with into usable intermediates. While this number might seem relatively low, the undigested material could simply be recycled and fed into the system once more to be digested.

There is also a second perk to the research, seen as most of the precursors necessary for this process would usually end up in compost heaps or landfill, the method could also be put forward as a waste reducing technique.

Has Dr. Brown single handedly saved the world from a future of darkness and woe? Not likely. There is the slight issue of mass production. The enzymes that the bacteria produce to digest the plant matter cannot simply be extracted wholesale or synthesized in a lab just yet. Enzymes are ludicrously complicated molecules made from millions of amino acids chained together in a very specific way.

Years of work goes into correctly synthesizing just one in a lab, and getting these enzymes to work more efficiently is also a problem. A 65.4% success rate is simply not a high enough number to justify producing anything on an industrial scale.

There is also the advent of the electric car, which has taken off quite dramatically in recent months. Alternatives, however, are always a good thing to have should one avenue become closed to us, and electricity production is another area that needs serious rethinking if it’s going to be maintained into the future.

What was achieved in Mississippi is a good start to a true and viable method of producing biofuel. Those of us who wish to see Dr. Emmett Brown’s poo-powered time machine DeLorean will have a while to wait however, as there is no such thing as time machines.

Though we may soon have toilet-powered cars, now won’t that be fun?