Tag Archives: pandas

The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

Panda poop might help biofuel production take a turn for the better

The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

The same organisms that make pandas effective at digesting bamboo may help turn plant waste into biofuels, according to researchers. (c) Keren Su, Corbis

Biofuels are very ‘hot’ at the moment, as they’ve started to gain traction. Production as increased about 400% since 2000, and that’s a good thing. Right? After all, anything that can replace fossil fuels is a better option. Well, not necessarily. A while ago, I wrote a piece for ZME Science in which listed some of reason why biofuels aren’t that ‘green’ as most people would like to think. In short, unsustainable biofuel production can be hazardous to the environment creating deforestation, erosion, loss of biodiversity, and impact on water resources. People shouldn’t forget that biofuels produce greenhouse gas emissions as well, albeit not in the same degree as fossil hydrocarbons.

Another important downside to biofuel production is that an important chunk of them are made from food crops, affecting food supply. For instance, ethanol made from corn is the most common alternative fuel in the U.S. Engineers tried developing fuels from non-edible corn stalks, corn cobs, and other plant material not meant for food production, however these require special processing to breakdown their tough cellulose fibers. Typically this translates in an energy intensive process that requires high temperature and pressure. It’s simply not feasible. Not impossible, though.

Scientists at Mississippi State University, led by Ashli Brown, think they may have found a method to work-around the energy intensive process and derive biofuels from non-edible crops much easier. And they have two of Memphis Zoo’s giant pandas to thank: Ya Ya and Le Le. The secret lies in their super panda feces.

“The giant pandas are contributing their feces,” explained Ashli Brown, a biochemist at Mississippi State University who heads the research. “We have discovered microbes in panda feces might actually be a solution to the search for sustainable new sources of energy. It’s amazing that here we have an endangered species that’s almost gone from the planet, yet there’s still so much we have yet to learn from it.”

Pandas’ diet mainly consists of bamboo and their small intestinal tract is perfectly adapted to digest them. Since bamboo is similar to the tough cellulose fibers non-edible crops have been given scientists so much headaches, the Mississipi researchers were on to something. Closer inspection showed 40 microbes living in the guts of the giant pandas with unusually potent enzymes.

“The time from eating to defecation is comparatively short in the panda, so their microbes have to be very efficient to get nutritional value out of the bamboo,” Brown notes. “And efficiency is key when it comes to biofuel production – that’s why we focused on the microbes in the giant panda.”

In addition to identifying bacteria that break down lignocellulose into simple sugars, the researchers also found bacteria that can take those sugars and transform them into oils and fats – which could be used for biodiesel production. Brown said that either the bacteria themselves or the enzymes in the bacteria could be used in the production of biofuels.

“These studies also help us learn more about this endangered animal’s digestive system and the microbes that live in it,” said Brown. “Understanding the relationships between the microbes and the pandas, as well as how they get their energy and nutrition, is extremely important… as fewer than 2,500 giant pandas are left in the wild and only 200 are in captivity.”

Next, the researchers have to work on a way to use these bacteria and enzymes themselves to produce biofuels in the lab.

via Nat Geographic

Giant Panda breeding breakthrough leads to wildlife re-introduction program

What’s maybe China’s most prominent symbol, the Giant Panda has been for decades now on the endangered species list, with an estimate wildlife population of circa. 2000-3000 individuals. Conservation efforts and breeding projects have been in the works for a very long time, efforts which even proved to render diplomatic benefits (In the late 70’s the People Republic of China loaned Pandas to American zoos, one of the first official cultural exchanges between the two countries), but only now scientists have managed to reach a breakthrough in breeding research which could finally very much lead to attempts to introduce Pandas to the wild.

In 1963 the first panda cub was born in captivity, and up to present date 300 adult giant pandas have been mated in captivity, time in which a perfect breeding was developed. This very important milestone, reached primarily by Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Centre, China, should lead to the re-introduction of the first panda in the wild within the next 15 years.

A lot of issues have been encountered by researchers during the very delicate breeding process, such as the very short breeding cycle of the giant panda – females go in heat only 72 hours a years, during which there’s only a 12 to 24 hour window when they can become pregnant. As such, a perfect knowledge of panda breeding, close supervision and daily urine samples were required. But this was only the tip of the iceberg of concerns that effected Chinese researchers. For example another issue they encountered was the pandas’ getting “turned off”! Apparently pandas weren’t too keen on getting it on when their whole habitat was comprised of 100 square feet, and even when they managed to get aroused mating partners were clumsy and didn’t know how get in the proper position, which is critical as a consequence of the male’s highly disproportionate small penis.

Intercourse? Heck, most of the time what was supposed to be a mating session turned into a brawl. As a last result, scientists turned to artificial insemination, but again because of the panda’s hectic reproductive cycle which causes pregnancies to last anytime between 11 weeks and 11 months and can remain undetected until shortly before birth, things became very complicated. Also, half of the female pandas give birth to twins but only care for one of them – in this case, a trick was employed by the Chengdu researchers, namely they cyclical swapping between cubs, one nursing, the other in the incubator, the female never telling the difference (the cub survival rate rose to 98% after this ingenious combination was implemented).

Hard work and most of all innovation finally fructified their efforts and with the goal of 300 captive pandas achieved, construction has started on the country’s first dedicated panda reintroduction facility. You can learn more about giant pandas and the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Centre during the broadcast of Panda Makers BBC TWO at 2000 GMT, Tuesday December 7th, a documentary two years in the making.

[via BBC]