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Biodiversity loss and panda poo

Posted 31/08/2011 by KatieJ

Life on Earth is a complex business, but scientists last week finally put a more accurate figure on how many life forms are believed to exist on our hospitable planet – 8.7 million species give or take a million or so. About 90% of those species have yet to be discovered or classified, according to the study published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology. Previous estimates had put the total number of species at anywhere from 3 to 100 million species.

Getting a more accurate estimate of the figures – via existing species databases and taxonomic information – will be important not only in understanding how many life forms abound now, but also in providing a more accurate picture of the biodiversity loss that is already occurring at an alarming rate. According to a recent Reuters report, some UN studies say the world is currently facing the worst losses since the dinosaurs vanished 65m years ago.

The value of species biodiversity – both plant and animal – is a subject about which most chemists are already well aware, from the numerous natural product based medicines to the plethora of wild plant varieties being tapped for their potential as biofuels and for their enhanced flavor and food properties.

Further evidence, presented here at the American Chemical Society meeting this week in Denver, comes from an even more unlikely source: panda poo. Bacteria found in the faeces of the endangered giant panda, researchers Ashli Brown and Candace Williams at Mississippi State University, US, have discovered, contains bacteria that are particularly promising for breaking down the super-tough lignocelluloses that occur in waste plant biomass. Under certain conditions, Brown estimated these bacteria can convert about 95% of plant biomass into simple sugars – using powerful enzymes that could eliminate the need for harsh acids, high temperatures and pressures currently used in biofuel production.

‘The discovery also teaches us an important lesson about the importance of biodiversity and preserving endangered animals,’ Brown said, pointing out that less than 2500 giant pandas remain in the wild. ‘Animals and plants are a major source of medicines and other products that people depend on. When we lose them to extinction, we may lose potential sources of these products.’

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor

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