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5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

This week we learned about scientists who built a seemingly immortal battery, a squadron of Air Force engineers and technicians who set the world speed record in magnetic levitation and a study that revealed where we store words in our brain.




A New Brain Atlas Shows Where We Store Words


An MRI image of the brain. Image credit: GE Global Research. Top Image: The rocket-powered maglev sled at Holloman Air Force Base. Image credit: U.S. Air Force

Neuroscientists from the University of California, Berkeley, armed with a magnetic resonance scanner and a radio, built a map of the human brain that shows how we store and organize words. The team built the “semantic atlas” by recording the neural activity of volunteers who listened to stories from the storytelling show “The Moth Radio Hour.” “The atlas identifies brain areas that respond to words that have similar meanings,” the team said. “Although the maps are broadly consistent across individuals, there are also substantial individual differences,” said study senior author Jack Gallant, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist. “We will need to conduct further studies across a larger, more diverse sample of people before we will be able to map these individual differences in detail.” The results were published in the journal Nature.


Across The U.S. In Four Hours In A Maglev Sled

Air Force engineers sent a magnetically levitating sled powered by a bundle of rockets down a straight test track at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico at 633 miles per hour, a world record for a maglev vehicle. At that speed, a train leaving New York would arrive in San Francisco just four hours later. That’s faster than a plane. “We use very cold helium to essentially levitate the sled via superconducting magnets,” said Lt. Col. Shawn Morgenstern, the commander of the 846th Test Squadron.


Scientists Find Clues To Battery Immortality

UCI chemist Reginald Penner and doctoral student Mya Le Thai, shown, have developed a nanowire-based battery technology that allows lithium ion batteries to be recharged hundreds of thousands of times. Steve Zylius/UCI

UCI chemist Reginald Penner and doctoral student Mya Le Thai, shown, have developed a nanowire-based battery technology that allows lithium ion batteries to be recharged hundreds of thousands of times. Image credit: Steve Zylius/UCI

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, invented a technology that allows lithium-ion batteries to outlive typical batteries by two orders of magnitude. The team charged and discharged an electrode made from highly conductive nanowires up to 200,000 times over three months “without detecting any loss of capacity or power,” they said. “That was crazy, because these things typically die in dramatic fashion after 5,000 or 6,000 or 7,000 cycles at most,” said Reginald Penner, chair of UCI’s chemistry department. A commercial version of the device could lead to a future where batteries never have to be replaced. The team published the research in the American Chemical Society’s Energy Letters.


This Single-Cell Slime Mold Can Learn New Tricks


The slime mold Physarum polycephalum (diameter: around 10 centimeters), made up of a single cell, was here cultivated in the laboratory on agar gel. Credit: Audrey Dussutour (CNRS)

A team of biologists working in France has shown that a single-celled organism lacking a nervous system can learn new things. “This discovery throws light on the origins of learning ability during evolution, even before the appearance of a nervous system and brain,” they wrote. “It may also raise questions as to the learning capacities of other extremely simple organisms such as viruses and bacteria.” The subject of the study was a giant type of a slime mold cell called Physarum polycephalum. The research was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.


New CRISPR Tool Edits DNA One Base Pair At A Time

Inner Life of Chemistry

CRISPR/Cas9 is a revolutionary DNA-editing tool that could one day help doctors edit out spelling mistakes from the genome. These mistakes can cause a range of deadly ailments, from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. There are several CRISPR editors available but none is as precise as the latest version developed by a team of scientists at Harvard University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Rather than rubbing out random pieces of the genome along with the target, the new tool allows the scientists to edit single DNA letters. “Here we report the development of ‘base editing’, a new approach to genome editing that enables the direct, irreversible conversion of one target DNA base into another in a programmable manner,” they wrote in the journal Nature.



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