Science Interviews


Fri, 8th Jun 2012

Smart Water Pumps and the Colourful Personality of Birds

Johan Auwerx, Ecole Pytechnique de Federale
Patrick Thomson, University of Oxford
Marco Zorzi, University of Padua
Claudia Metke-Hoffman, Liverpool John Moore's University

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Milking away Obesity

A protein found in milk can keep obesity and diabetes at bay, as well as improve physical endurance.

When given to mice on a high fat diet, the protein nicotinamide riboside was found to prevent weight gain and type II diabetes by entering cells and increasing the activity of mitochondria – the powerhouses of the cell - to improve metabolism.

The protein could one day become a supplement but as it is found in a range of foods  as well as milk, including bread and beer, a varied diet holds the key until then.

Johan Auwerx from the Ecole Polytechnique de Federale lead the work published in Science.

Johan -   Many age-related diseases from obesity, diabetes to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease are linked with defective mitochondria.  Here, we provide a natural product which we consume every day which helps to keep these mitochondria in better shape.  There are products out there which we can consume, so we’re more protected against the decline with aging.




‘Smart’ WatChild drinking from water pumper Pumps

Mobile phones are being used to improve water supplies in rural Africa, according to research in the journal of hydroinformatics.

Patrick Thomson from the University of Oxford  developed ‘smart’ water pumps containing data transmitters that use the increasing access to mobile networks now available across Africa to send out text messages when a pump breaks down.

The technology uses the movement of a pump’s handle to estimate its water flow with data sent back to a central office when this flow is impaired to arrange for its repair with 70 being introduced in Kenya later this year.

Patrick -   Across Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s estimated that the third of all hand pumps at any one time are non-functioning.  When these pumps break, often the people who are qualified and equipped to repair them do not know that they're broken.  So the idea of this system is that the senior the pump is no longer doing its job, not working properly, those people who have the skills and knowledge to repair them though straight away, but the downtimes problems can be shortened and their communities can have access to freshwater.


Improving Reading abilities in Dyslexia

Increasing the spacing between letters significantly improves the readings skills of people with dyslexia.

Writing in the journal PNAS, Marco Zorzi from the University of Padua asked 94 French and Italian children with dyslexia to read pieces of text with both standard and double spaced wording and found that widened spacing doubled the accuracy of their reading and increased their reading speed by 20%.

The team suggest the spacing overcomes the problem of ‘crowding’ where letters are closely surrounded by other letters, making them harder to identify.

Marco -   The findings show that visual attentional factors may play a really important role in dyslexia in addition to problems with it from the phonological domain.  This manipulation of letter spacing, is easy to implement.  In principle, we don't see why publisher may not print out books with wider spacing.  In the era of digital printing on demand that would be very easy and feasible to do.




A colourful personality

And finally, the personality of a Gouldian finch can be predicted by the colour of its head.

Three aspects of personality were measured in 40 of these endangered Australian birds in the wild  - risk-taking, aggression and boldness by exposing them to unfamiliar objects, silhouettes of predator birds and limited access to food.

The team, led by Claudia Mettke-Hofman from Liverpool John Moore’s University found that Finches with red heads tended to show more aggression to access food whilst those with black heads were more bold and risk-taking.

Claudia -   The red-headed birds, they may have a disadvantage because they are more conspicuous with their red heads so they suffer by higher predation.  So it’s good for them to be less explorative.  The black-headed birds in contrast are their subordinates, but because they are less conspicuous, they can take greater risk and this combination can have important implications for conservation to find the optimal group composition which would give the species the optimal combination to survive in the wild.

And that work was published this week in the journal Animal Behaviour.


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