TED Science worth knowing newsletter

Image: Flickr / IWRM AIO SIDS (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A useful afterlife for plastic bottles

Human industry produces some 26 million tons of the plastic known as PET each year. All too much of it ends up in landfills or the ocean in the form of plastic water bottles or fibers. Even the plastic that does get recycled can't be reused more than once or twice. But now researchers have come up with a way to give such a plastic a longer, more useful second life by combining it with material from plants to produce fiber-reinforced plastics, which are used in things like wind turbine blades and surfboards. So the plastic might still end up in the ocean, but in a more fun and less permanent way.

TED Talk: The surprising solution to ocean plastic


Recalling a memory may require synced up brain waves

What's happening in the brain when we recall a memory? Based on new evidence, the synchronization of brain waves may have something to do with it. Researchers monitored the signals from implanted electrodes as 14 patients attempted to recall a specific memory. In the brains of patients who successfully remembered something, high-frequency brain waves -- known as ripples -- in two disparate regions of the brain happened at the same time in the same way. The ripples seem to be important in how the brain transmits information, and this may mark the first time researchers have observed a memory being retrieved. Remember it.

Watch TED Talks about memory
mouse vision

Image: Flickr / Yu-Chan Chen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Mice given power to see heat

Most mammals can only see the visible wavelengths of light, but that's a very small slice of the spectrum. Now, by injecting nanoparticles that bind to the light receptors in a mouse's eye, scientists gifted them the ability to see heat and other infrared light. The nanoparticles essentially convert the long wavelength infrared light into shorter wavelength light that can be detected by a mammal's eye. Mice with this infrared vision superpower were even able to use it to navigate mazes.

Playlist: Jaw-dropping science breakthroughs

Recently discovered

Scientists brew cannabinoids using hacked beer yeast
The yeast that people have used for millennia to brew alcoholic drinks has now been engineered to produce cannabinoids -- chemicals with medicinal and sometimes mind-altering properties found in cannabis. The feat, described in Nature, turns a sugar in brewer's yeast called galactose into tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis. The altered yeast can also produce cannabidiol (CBD), another major cannabinoid that's attracted attention lately for its potential therapeutic benefits, including its anti-anxiety and pain-relief effects. (Nature)

China's CRISPR twins might have had their brains inadvertently enhanced
The brains of two genetically edited girls born in China last year may have been changed in ways that enhance cognition and memory, scientists say. The twins, named Lulu and Nana, reportedly had their genes modified before birth by a Chinese scientific team using the new editing tool CRISPR. The goal was to make the girls immune to infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Now, new research shows that the same alteration introduced into the girls' DNA -- deletion of a gene called CCR5 -- not only makes mice smarter but also improves human brain recovery after stroke and could be linked to greater success in school. (MIT Technology Review)

Antidepressant based on party drug gets backing from FDA advisory group
A form of the hallucinogenic party drug ketamine has cleared one of the final hurdles towards clinical use as an antidepressant. At a February meeting at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Silver Spring, Maryland, an independent advisory panel voted in favor of recommending a compound known as esketamine for use in treating depression. If the FDA approves the drug, it could buoy the chances of other ketamine-inspired treatments now under development. But questions remain about esketamine's overall effectiveness at lifting mood and its potential to be abused. (Nature)

Kalashnikov unveils kamikaze drone
The Russian company that gave the world the iconic AK-47 assault rifle has unveiled a suicide drone that may similarly revolutionize war by making sophisticated drone warfare technology widely and cheaply available. The Kalashnikov Group put a model of its miniature exploding drone on display last week at a defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi, where the world's arms companies gather every two years to show off and market their latest wares. (Washington Post)

On this day in science

On March 1 ... Dmitri Mendeleev sends off his first draft of the periodic table for publication in 1869 (2019 is also the international year of the periodic table) and Yellowstone became the world's first national park in 1872. 

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