Dr. Ismaila Emahi, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Chemical Sciences, University of Energy and Natural Resources (UENR), has teamed up with scientists at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom to research hazardous levels of heavy metal contamination in drinking water sources in Nigeria and Ghana.
The partnership, facilitated by the Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research Fund, aims to accelerate research into cost-effective and accessible solutions for detoxifying groundwater contaminated with heavy metals, especially arsenic, a public health and environmental concern within the sub-region.
This collaborative effort spearheaded by Dr. Emahi is complemented by another project aimed at decontaminating arsenic in water, led by Dr. Owolabi Bankole from Adekunle Ajasin University in Nigeria. Dr. Bankole is developing a filter that can effectively absorb different forms of arsenic from water, including the highly soluble and mobile arsenites that are particularly challenging to remove.
Dr. Emahi’s innovative research focuses on flexible single strands of DNA called aptamers, which he envisions as “artificial tongues” capable of detecting and removing heavy metals in water. Unlike the rigid double-helix structure of conventional DNA, single-stranded aptamers offer greater versatility in research applications and this research involves characterizing these aptamers to detect heavy metal pollution in water effectively.
Dr. Emahi explains, “My ultimate research goal is to develop artificial tongues. My aim is to use aptamers as a tongue to sense heavy metals in water and then also remove them. Sensing is the first step, but I want to go beyond just sensing to removal.” The aptamer device developed by Dr. Emahi practically functions like a tongue, detecting heavy metals in water through a “tasting” process while also “eating” or removing them. This innovative approach to water purification could revolutionize the way heavy metal contamination is addressed in Nigeria and Ghana, offering a promising and accessible solution to test water for pollutants.
To achieve his ambitious goals, Dr. Emahi is collaborating with Dr. Jenny Zhang, who runs a bio electrochemistry group at the University of Cambridge. With her expertise in electrochemistry, Dr. Zhang is assisting Dr. Emahi in characterizing the behavior of DNA aptamers in the presence and absence of heavy metals. Reflecting on the significance of this collaboration, Dr. Zhang emphasizes, “Poor water quality is a huge problem all over the world, even in the United Kingdom. With this collaboration, we hope to find a more impactful solution quicker.” The research holds tremendous promise for safeguarding public health and the environment by providing low-cost, efficient, and accessible solutions for heavy metal water pollution in Ghana, Nigeria, and beyond.
The collaboration is supported by the Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research Fund, the International Foundation for Science, and the Tertiary Education Trust Fund.