Chinese scientists solve pandas' bamboo diet mystery -

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AS the only bear to follow an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, the giant panda's eating habits have long been something of a mystery.

But an explanation for the species' status as a herbivorous carnivore now has been identified by Chinese scientists.

Though the panda has a carnivore's digestive system that should get little energy and protein out of plants, it subsists almost entirely on bamboo, consuming up to 12 kilograms every day.

Scientists discovered microbes in the panda's gut that give it the ability to digest the fibrous tissues in bamboo, cellulose and hemicellulose - plant fibers that most carnivores cannot break down.

Researchers led by Fuwen Wei, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, found the strongest evidence yet for a symbiotic relationship between pandas and their gut flora, which makes the species' iconic diet possible.

"The gut microbiome of giant pandas has enriched metabolism of carbohydrates, amino acids, xenobiotics, nucleotides, glycans, vitamins and lipids, which can bring the basic nutrition and energy for pandas' living," Wei said.

He added that the research could benefit conservation programs to protect the giant panda, an endangered species threatened by the loss of bamboo habitats and a very low birth rate.

"This research uncovered the normal gut microbe composition and the nutrient utilization in giant pandas, which can be used as the scientific standard to monitor the health of wild and captive pandas in the future," Wei added.

In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Wei's team took fecal samples from wild and captive pandas then analysed the genetic signaling chemical RNA to determine which bacteria were present.

18 Oct, 2011

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