Save the Pandas! We Need Their Poop.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 12 2013 10:45 AM

Save the Pandas! We Need Their Poop.

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Male giant panda Tian Tian takes a stroll at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

People love pandas. Well OK, not the editor of Slate. But most Americans tend to afford the panda a level of celebrity comparable to that of the British royal family. Which is to say, we want to know about every birth, death, and pregnancy. And screw. And yes, now we’re digging through their poo.

At least this new level of pandevotion has less to do with cult and more to do with science. At the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society this week, researchers from the University of Mississippi gave a presentation on how microbes in the bear’s feces might help us better break down plant material for biofuel. (Yes, scientists say that pandas really are bears.) Or as the headline of the press release put it, “Panda Poop Microbes Could Make Biofuels of the Future.”

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So let me get this straight—we’re going to pin our hopes for the future of fuel on one of the most endangered species in the world?

All right, so this isn’t totally absurd. Giant pandas eat bamboo, lots and lots of bamboo. Unlike grizzlies that guzzle down fatty salmon or polar bears that subsist on blubber, the panda has evolved to wrench sustenance out of a glorified grass notable for its paltry nutrient content. So, how are the great bears able to perform such a feat? Well, they have 40-some varieties of microbes in their gut honed to break down woody plant matter. The question is, can panda-gut microbes and their special enzymes do it more effectively than the industrial enzymes we use now?

Candace Williams, one of the Ph.D. candidates working on the project, says there are many reasons to be hopeful. “Some of these organisms are unique,” she told me, “which means they’ve never been classified before.”

Williams and her team have also identified two different kinds of organisms among the population present in panda feces—some that are cellulolytic (good at breaking down woody material) and others that are oleaginous (good at accumulating lipids). Both of these properties are important for the production of biofuel, and right now we accomplish them independently. That fact that panda poop carries a one-two punch may one day be important.

It should be noted that the promise of such technology doesn’t further endanger bears—which is good, because they have enough problems. The microbes and their enzymes can be manufactured in a lab without someone having to follow a panda around with a bucket. But that raises an interesting scenario—what if panda poop-enabled biofuel takes off and we still can’t keep the species from going extinct over the next century? What if someday the idea of the panda lives on like a HeLa cell—present only in the microscopic organisms that we deem relevant?

I’m not saying this is going to happen, or even that it’s likely, only that the situation illustrates the give-and-take we humans exact on the world around us.

“This should serve as an example to everyone as to the importance of conserving endangered species—and not just pandas,” said Williams. “We have so much to learn from everything that we should try to conserve as much as possible.”

Sure, de-extinction may someday become possible, but it’s no magic bullet. Even if you could de-extinct a panda, how long would it last without its microbiome? Long enough to evolve a new one? Or maybe long enough for us to de-extinct one for it?

Either way, I’m of the opinion that we need all the nature we can get. Whether it’s biofuel from panda scat, sea otters cleaning up our agricultural habits, the 70 percent of newly-developed pharmaceuticals that come from things we find in the woods, or whatever Sean Connery was doing in Medicine Man—nature is like Tyler Durden. We’d do best not to cuss with it.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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