Researchers from Kitasato University in Tokyo have been awarded this year's Ig Nobel Biology Prize for demonstrating a method to reduce kitchen waste by more than 90% by using bacteria derived from Giant Panda excrement.
Professor Fumiaki Taguchi, who shares the prize with fellow researchers Song Guofu and Zhang Guanglei (both from the Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences), began the project in 1998 after suspecting panda feces must contain bacteria capable of breaking down even the hardiest of foods because of the bear's vast consumption of bamboo.
Found in only a handful of areas in mainland China, the Giant Panda has a diet which is 99% bamboo. The rare and exotic animal, which can weigh as much 150 kilograms (330 lbs), feeds on 25 varieties of bamboo and consumes as much as 9 to 14 kilograms (20 to 30 lbs) per day.
After identifying some 270 different microorganisms in panda dung obtained from Tokyo's Ueno Zoo, the researchers isolated five types of bacteria that were the most efficient at breaking down proteins and fats and that could reproduce easily even under high heat.
In one experiment, the researchers mixed the bacteria with 70 to 100 kilograms (lbs) of raw garbage, including vegetable stems, potatoes (raw and fried) and fish remains, and placed it in an industrial waste disposal machine. Seventeen weeks later, only 3 kilograms (6.6 lbs) of waste remained, while the rest had turned to water and carbon dioxide. With a digestive rate of up to 96%, the bacteria from panda excrement is significantly more effective than most commercial disposal bacteria, which has a digestive rate of around 80%.
In 2003, Taguchi also claimed it was possible to harvest about 100 liters (26 gallons) of hydrogen gas for every kilogram (2.2 lbs) of waste treated with panda poo. At the time, he was exploring the possibility of integrating a hydrogen fuel cell into a waste disposal unit to sell to food processing companies in Japan.
Interestingly, Taguchi is not the first Japanese scientist to receive an Ig Nobel Prize for excrement-themed research. In 2007, researcher Mayu Yamamoto won the chemistry prize for developing a method for extracting vanillin — an ingredient in vanilla fragrance and flavoring — from cow dung.
Taguchi is the 13th Japanese person to receive an Ig Nobel Prize since the awards were established in 1991. Previous prize-winning achievements from Japan include the invention of karaoke, which received the Peace Prize, and the Tamagotchi, which received the Economics Prize.
The annual Ig Nobel Prizes are meant to honor scientific achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think,” according to the founders at science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research.