Panda-poop prof scoops Ig Nobel honor

Japanese munching microbes acclaimed, but officialdom renders them a waste of time

by Eriko Arita

Bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas can be used to reduce food waste to less than 10 percent of its original mass. For making this stunning — and potentially invaluable — scientific discovery, Fumiaki Taguchi, Professor Emeritus of Kitasato University in Kanagawa Prefecture, was awarded a 2009 Ig Nobel Prize for biology in a ceremony at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Oct. 1.

Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that “first make people laugh and then make them think,” according to U.S.-based Improbable Research, a grouping of scientists, journalists and other luminaries from around the world that bestowed these honors for work in many fields since 1991.

At the prize-giving in the university’s Sanders Theater, Taguchi gave a minutelong speech in English to an audience of 1,200 while holding a cardboard cutout of a panda produced by Sanrio Co. (complete with furry applique a la mode), he noted with pride in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

In fact, as the transcript of his speech records, the 72-year-old professor actually started his oration saying, “Firstly, let me tell you that I owe my being here today to two important buddies in my career. They are the giant panda and its feces. Stems or leaves of the pandas’ main diet of bamboo are excreted almost undigested. I was lucky because the feces had no stinking smell, which is good for experiment material and makes it easy to handle.”

But then, just as he got to the last paragraph of his prepared manuscript, his 60 seconds of allotted time ran out. “At that moment a little girl appeared on the stage and told me, ‘Stop talking!’ ” Taguchi said. Although he asked her to wait, she repeated the phrase in a high-pitched voice, he recalled rather ruefully.

“I told her, ‘I will give you this panda (I’m holding), so please wait for a few seconds.’ She was excited to have the panda and left the stage,” he said.

The girl surprised Taguchi, but what amazed him more was that he met genuine Nobel Prize laureates at the ceremony.

One of them was Sir Richard Roberts, an English biochemist awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In fact it was Roberts — wearing a red gown and a jester’s hat with a Union Jack design — who handed the award to Taguchi.

“Then he shook my hand strongly and kept on shaking it vigorously for a few minutes, which made the audience laugh,” Taguchi said.

Apart from the main prize of being honored as an Ig Nobel laureate, Taguchi also received an ornament comprising two garishly colored and improbably balanced sponge dices, a certificate signed by three Nobel laureates, and an illustration of “The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin’s famed sculpture — except that in this illustration, the thinker has fallen of his pedestal.

Unlike Nobel laureates, though, Ig Nobel ones receive no fat check to take away with them — in fact, they even have to pay their own travel expenses to attend the ceremony.

Meanwhile, according to Improbable Research, it’s a tradition at the ceremony for members of the audience to make paper airplanes and throw them toward the stage when someone up there says something funny. At this year’s ceremony, Taguchi explained, the role of stage sweeper was filled by Roy Glauber, 2005′s Nobel laureate in physics, who is a Harvard professor. Apparently, he rose well to the challenge as his broom briskly cleared away squadron after squadron of planes.

Though the Ig Nobel prize and its ceremonial frolics may not seem serious, in fact the award to Taguchi, a specialist in microbes, reflected the result of more than 10 years’ work.

But however did he come to take a scientific interest in panda poop?

Well, as he explained, he was first interested in waste processing that consumes a lot of money, energy and space. “To solve the problem, I thought bacteria could be a great tool because they don’t need a heat source to work,” he said.

After repeated unsuccessful tests with different bacteria, Taguchi then hit on the idea that giant pandas, which feed almost exclusively on bamboo leaves, may have powerful bacteria in their guts that break down the tough vegetable matter. He duly went to Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, which had a giant panda at that time.

“There I learned that a full-grown panda eats 40 kg of bamboo leaves a day — but excretes about same weight of feces. When I heard that, I thought the animals must have a secret way of maintaining their huge bodies,” he said.

So off he went with samples of panda excrement from the zoo to begin conducting experiments to find out its active bacterial component. However, in line with his usual practice when confronted with a difficult experiment, Taguchi first intoned over the poop the traditional Japanese good-luck spell, “Chichinpuipui!’

Whether because of the spell or scientific skill, it wasn’t long before Taguchi had succeeded in isolating the active bacteria from the feces and identifying the enzymes that promote panda digestion.

To find out whether the microbe could actually “eat organic waste,” as Taguchi put it, he bought a household kitchen waste-composting machine and collected a few sacks of organic scraps such as cabbage trimmings and bony fish offcuts from a supermarket.

Then, back at his lab, he “seeded” the 20-kg machine with panda-poop microbes and put 2 kg of waste in it every day. And ole! — after 10 days he found that the machine weighed only a tad over 20 kg.

“Some 95 percent of the waste disappeared. It was an incredible result, as the world’s most efficient composting machine could only degrade 80 percent of the waste,” Taguchi said.

Before hitting on the idea of using panda-poop bacteria, Taguchi had experimented with microbes from termite saliva — after first casting an “Open Sesame” spell over the slime. Through that research, before getting to panda poop, he said he’d already established that termite bacteria could decompose organic waste and produce hydrogen as a byproduct.

So when he next combined termite- saliva and panda-poop bacteria and added the concoction to organic waste, what he found was that almost all the organic material disappeared — and sizable amounts of hydrogen were released.

Extrapolating from his lab results, Taguchi then calculated that if all the 454 million tons of organic waste generated annually in Japan were to be “eaten” by his panda-termite bacteria, not only would it virtually disappear, but some 36.8 billion cu. meters of hydrogen would be generated — enough to power 1 million fuel-cell vehicles to run for 150 days.

Obviously, assuming Taguchi’s data is anywhere near accurate, he has come up with a major game-changer for the waste-disposal world, as well as yielding a significant power source at virtually no cost. So why has his discovery not yet been taken up commercially?

Well, as the professor explains, many people remain skeptical that his breakthrough could work well enough and fast enough to cope with high volumes of waste. Consequently, he is eager to put it to the test on an industrial scale with “dozens of tons in a huge tank” — but that hydrogen is the problem.

Because hydrogen is an explosive gas, to do large-scale testing Taguchi needs to get permission from the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. And to date, the agency has denied him that permission, citing as the reason: “We haven’t given such permission before.”

However, with his Ig Nobel Prize, the professor hopes there will now be more chance of his discovery becoming widely known. To set that process in motion, on Oct. 3 he gave a five-minute presentation at an event titled “Ig Informal Lectures” that was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Feces from panda, and termites, have given us wondrous gifts of bacteria that can benefit us all through a new waste-processing technology that also contributes to the fight against global warming,” Taguchi told his MIT audience, adding rather triumphantly: “This is feces innovation.”

Sure enough, since receiving his Ig Nobel Prize, the professor has received many inquiries from media outlets in Japan and overseas. But to his chagrin, he says that not a single local government in Japan, has contacted him for help with waste disposal.

Perhaps, though, Taguchi’s Ig Nobel Prize — awarded for an achievement that “first makes people laugh and then makes them think” — will one day lead movers and shakers in the world of waste to cease snickering and instead make serious inquiries.