published Monday, September 16th, 2013

Memphis Zoo pandas help biofuel researchers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo are attracting attention from onlookers and researchers.

Ya Ya and Le Le have become one of the most popular attractions for visitors of the zoo, but they are getting attention from biofuel researchers at Mississippi State University.

The Commercial Appeal reports researchers are studying how bacteria helps the pandas digest bamboo plants, which have tough cellulose. They say they hope to find a better mechanism for processing plant materials to produce biofuels, like ethanol, without the use of edible corn or soybeans.

Lead researcher Ashli Brown said she and her research assistants retrieve a variety of bacteria strains by collecting panda waste and culturing it in the lab in order to continue the strains.

She said researchers are finding that the tough cellulose material of corn stalks, corn cobs and other parts of the plant that aren't edible can be broken down using bacteria or microbes from the pandas' digestive tracts.

"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 to learn from it," she said. "That underscores the importance of saving endangered and threatened animals."

Research scientist Katrina Knott said the zoo had no reservations about participating in the study because it is noninvasive.

In addition to the possibility of using more non-edible plant parts, Brown said using bacteria to help break down plant material would save money.

"One of the most expensive parts of using biofuels is the pretreatment process. You now have to use high heat or acids, and then it has to be neutralized. So (with bacteria) we could make the biofuels industry more economically feasible," she said.

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