Water Sources in Africa and Orangutan Engineers

Water sources below Africa, potential anti-cancer effects of Aspirin, a new polymer for cheaper solar cells and how orangutans engineer their nests...
20 April 2012

Interview with 

Helen Bonsor, British Geological Survey; Graham Hardie, University of Dundee; Bernard Kippelen from the Georgia Institute of Technology; Roland Ennor, University of Manchester


New Water Source Revealed throughout Africa

Water availability across Africa could be improved significantly by tapping into reservoirs of groundwater.africa

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Helen Bonsor from the British Geological Survey collated data from regional maps and scientific literature and mapped the potential yield of groundwater across the African continent. The findings estimated the total volume available to be 0.66 million km2, more than 100 times that available on the surface annually. However, levels were found to vary greatly in different regions.

Helen -   The amount of groundwater available in Africa varies considerably and it's not available for widespread development of high yielding bore holes across the continent.  There's only large volumes of groundwater stored in North Africa, so in Libya, Chad, Algeria. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the population live, there's actually much lower groundwater volume stored there.  If it's exploited very carefully then it is possible that groundwater could support small scale drinking water supplies where there are 300 million people who don't have basic access to water.


New Disease Targets for Aspirin

A new effect of aspirin in the human body has been discovered by scientists at the University of Dundee. Once consumed, aspirin is rapidly broken down into the compound salicylate. When applied to human cells in the lab, Graham Hardie found that high concentrations of this compound activated the enzyme AMPK - a regulator of cell growth and metabolism. It's thought this effect of aspirin, away from its pain-killing properties, could be beneficial against a range of diseases, including cancer...

Graham -   It's been found that the people who take aspirin long term tend to have a lower incidence of cancer.  So, it's at least possible that the effects of taking regular aspirin on cancer might not be mediated by the sort of classical target, but might be mediated instead by this new target which is AMPK.  We haven't proved that yet, but it raises an exciting prospect that this very old drug might actually have some new applications.


Polymer for cheaper solar cells

A new polymer could enable cheaper, easy to produce solar cells. To be able to generate electricity, organic electronics, such as solar cells, require the use of materials that receive and release electrons readily. This usually means the use of conductors such as calcium or magnesium which are highly reactive with air and water and as a result are coated with thick, expensive materials to stabilise them. But now, a new polymer developed by Bernard Kippelen from the Georgia Institute of Technology has been shown to achieve this property in less reactive materials when applied to them as a thin coating...

Bernard -   These polymers are air stable, so they don't degrade in contact with air, and we hope that the use of air stable materials in the field of organic photovoltaics will accelerate the deployment of these technologies through reduced cost and simpler manufacturing.

Sumatran orangutan

Orangutan Engineers

And finally, orangutans use advanced engineering skills when building their nests, according to scientists at the University of Manchester. By observing 14 orangutan nests in Sumatra, the team found that strength, flexibility and comfort were taken into account by the apes with different branch types being used for various aspects of design. Thick branches were only half split and weaved together to make a strong basket-like structure, and  thinner branches used to construct a comfortable lining to sleep on. Roland Ennos is a senior member of the research team.

Ronald - Orangutans are much more sophisticated in their use of branches in producing nests than we hitherto have thought.  They seem to have some knowledge of the properties of the wood and how it will break, and they make best use of those properties.  And this has implications for the evolution of intelligence. It suggests that we are not the only toolmakers and that the evolution of intelligence might be related to the ability of organisms to manipulate their mechanical environment, not just their social environment.

The work was published in the journal PNAS.


Add a comment