• Thomson Reuters Foundation


In a world aiming to shift to greener energy, could slugs, ants and even pandas help show the way?

Scientists believe the animals’ unique ability to break down tough plant material, including bamboo, could provide clues to ramping up production of plant-based biofuels, one substitute for the fossil fuels that drive global warming.

Researchers at Aarhus University, in Denmark, are searching for special enzymes and microorganisms that the animals use to break down dry plant material, such as wood, crop residue and grass.

Biologist Alberto Scoma got the idea while gazing at the panda enclosure at a Belgium zoo and wondering how such a big animal managed to process enough bamboo to survive on it.

Now he has teamed up with four other scientists for a three-year project, starting this year, to look at the digestive systems of not just pandas but also Portuguese slugs and leaf-cutter ants.

“We basically want to see what is happening in the guts — who and what exactly is breaking down the bamboo,” he said in a telephone interview.

Many governments have included biofuels in their renewable energy plans but environmentalists and rights groups say growing plant-based fuels can compete for land with food production.

But creating biofuels from waste or fast-growing materials such as bamboo could make them somewhat greener.

Pandas “eat plenty of bamboo, about 10 kilos a day … but within 12 hours, the ingested bamboo is out of the animal already,” said Scoma, an associate biological and chemical engineering professor.

In a previous study, after collecting panda dung, the scientists incubated bacteria in it in a laboratory, fed the bacteria bamboo and discovered the organisms could quickly break down biomass into products including ethanol and hydrogen, both potential fuels.

In addition, because the bamboo stays in the pandas’ system for such a short time, the black and white animals don’t produce methane — a potent greenhouse gas produced in large quantities by cattle and other livestock.

The research suggests there is “massive potential for large-scale sustainable production of biofuel,” the scientists said in a statement this week.

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