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Researchers force two mice to hang out and induce FOMO in a third

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Since its advent in 2005, a technique called optogenetics has made it vastly easier to link neural activity with behavior and to understand how neurons and brain regions are connected to each other. Neuroscientists just pick the (animal) neurons they’re interested in, genetically engineer them to express a light-responsive protein, and then stimulate them with the right type of light. This technique can be used to inhibit or excite a select subset of neurons in living, breathing, moving animals, illuminating which neural networks dictate the animals’ behaviors and decisions.

Taking advantage of work done in miniaturizing the optogenetic hardware, researchers have now used optogenetics to alter the activity in parts of the brain that influence social interactions in mice. And they’ve exerted a disturbing level of control over the way the mice interact.

Going small

A big limitation for early optogenetic studies was that the wires and optical fibers required to get light into an animal’s brain also get in the animals’ way, impeding their movements and potentially skewing results. Newer implantable wireless devices were developed about five years ago, but they can only be placed near certain brain regions. They’re also too tiny to accommodate many circuit components and receiver antennas, and they have to be programmed beforehand. Pity the poor would-be mind controllers who have to deal with such limited tools.

Enter John Rogers, founding director of the newly endowed Center on Bio-Integrated Electronics at Northwestern University. His lab recently invented multilateral optogenetic devices that can be implanted into the heads or backs of animals as small as mice. The devices can receive instructions on different channels, so they allow researchers to independently and simultaneously modulate neuronal activity in different brain regions of one mouse or in different mice within the same enclosure. The devices are controlled wirelessly from a PC, and researchers can alter the instructions to them in real time as an experiment is proceeding.

After confirming that the implanted devices neither affected nor were affected by a mouse’s movements and that they didn’t damage any of the mouse’s tissues or physiology, the scientists in Rogers’ group popped a light-responsive protein into some dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental areas of some mice. These regions are linked to reward processing. The researchers then implanted their new device under the skin of the transgenic mouse.

The first tests confirmed results attained in previous optogenetic experiments: implant-affected mice that got a dopamine-fueled reward via a burst of light hovered on the side of the enclosure where the system was programmed to produce light. So far, so good. Next, since the researchers knew that dopamine promotes social behavior, they wanted to see if the light stimulation made the implanted mice choose to hang out near another mouse rather than a toy one. They did.

Getting social

To put the system to use, the researchers tested an idea from a number of earlier studies suggesting that mice that socialize together tend to have synchronized activity in a specific area of their brains. The new optogenetic hardware provided a way to artificially create that synchrony.

So the researchers generated “synchronized interbrain activity” by stimulating two mice with 5-Hz tonic (continuous) stimulation for five minutes and desynchronized activity by stimulating other pairs of mice with 25-Hz bursting stimulation for five minutes. About twice as many of the synchronized mice chose to socialize with each other—grooming, sniffing, etc.—as the desynchronized mice did. When two mice were synchronized into a 5-Hz pair and a third mouse got the 25-Hz burst, the pair shunned the desynchronized third. The researchers conclude that “imposed interbrain synchrony shapes social interaction and social preference in mice.”

The Rogers Research Group’s home page is subtitled “science that brings solutions to society.” The lab has developed wearable wireless devices that seamlessly track vital signs of neonates in the NICU, record electrical activity in the brain, and detect and monitor symptoms of COVID-19. And that was only in the past year.

So before you let your mind go to dark places—about brainwashing and goose-stepping and everyone forever staying sequestered in their ideologically homogeneous Facebook silos—just remember that Dr. Rogers is using his powers for good. Also, this work was done in genetically engineered mice.

Nature Neuroscience, 2021. DOI:  10.1038/s41593-021-00849-x

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SpaceX to break the final frontier in reuse with national defense launch

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Enlarge / The GPS III SV-05 vehicle is encapsulated in the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing.

Lockheed Martin

A few years ago one of SpaceX’s earliest employees, Hans Koenigsmann, told me one of the company’s goals was to take the “magic” out of rocket launches. It’s just physics, he explained.

As its Falcon 9 rocket has become more reliable and flown more frequently—18 launches so far this year, and counting—it seems that SpaceX has succeeded in taking the magic out of launches. And while reliability should definitely be the goal, such regularity does distract from the spectacle of watching a rocket launch.

But there are still some special Falcon 9 missions, and that’s certainly the case with a launch expected to occur at 12:09 pm ET (16:09 UTC) on Thursday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. With the launch of a next-generation GPS III spacecraft, SpaceX will fly a national security mission for the first time on a reused booster.

Last year the Space Force and SpaceX agreed to contract modifications allowing for the launch of this GPS III mission (Space Vehicle-05) and another one (SV-06) on reused Falcon 9 first-stage rockets. The Space Force agreed to allow the GPS III satellites to be launched into a different orbital perigee, enabling a drone ship recovery attempt. The first stage set to launch Thursday previously flew the GPS III SV-04 last November. In return for this accommodation, SpaceX agreed to some additional spacecraft requirements for future missions and saved the US government $52 million.

This represents an important signal from the military that it is ready to embrace reused rockets for its most important missions and is something of a final frontier for SpaceX as it seeks to push forward the reuse of Falcon 9 first stages. NASA has already launched its highest-value missions, astronauts, on a reused first stage with the Crew-2 flight in April.

Thursday’s GPS mission is a high priority for the Space Force, too, as it seeks to modernize its navigation constellation. This new generation of global positioning satellites, built by Lockheed Martin, have three times greater accuracy and an anti-jamming capability that is eight times higher than earlier versions. The next five GPS satellites, vehicles 06 to 10, are in various states of readiness for launch. And Lockheed Martin has been contracted to build up to 22 additional vehicles.

Weather for Thursday’s 15-minute launch window looks reasonable, with only a 30 percent chance of unfavorable conditions. Upper-level winds may be a concern, however. The SpaceX webcast embedded below should begin about 15 minutes before the launch window opens.

Launch of GPS III SV-05 mission.

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After ruining 75M J&J doses, Emergent gets FDA clearance for 25M doses

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Enlarge / The Emergent BioSolutions plant, a manufacturing partner for Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 9, 2021.

The US Food and Drug Administration is making progress in its efforts to sort out the fiasco at Emergent BioSolutions’ Baltimore facility, which, at this point, has ruined more than 75 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines stemming from what the regulator identified as significant quality control failures.

In March, news leaked that Emergent ruined 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine as well as millions more doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. The spoilage happened when Emergent cross-contaminated batches of the two vaccines with ingredients from the other.

Last week, the FDA told Emergent to trash about 60 million more doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine due to similar contamination concerns, The New York Times reported.

But at the same time, the agency cleared 10 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine for use—with the catch that the doses must carry a warning saying that the FDA cannot guarantee Emergent followed good manufacturing practices while making them. And on Tuesday, the FDA cleared an additional 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, bringing the total number of acceptable doses to just 25 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Still, more than 100 million finished doses of Johnson & Johnson’s and AstaZeneca’s vaccines are still in limbo at the facility, awaiting FDA review. All of the doses at the facility were made prior to April 16, when the FDA shut down production after an investigation found sweeping and significant quality control failures and manufacturing violations.

Some lawmakers say the issues were clear before the investigation; Emergent has a long track record of such problems, as well as trouble fulfilling contracts.

Troubled past

Still, the manufacturer was contracted during the pandemic to produce both the Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine and AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which use similar adenovirus-based vaccine platforms. Emergent had also been awarded millions of dollars in federal grants to help respond to the pandemic swiftly, including $27-million monthly “reservation” payments to keep its facility at the ready to produce large amounts of vaccine under proper manufacturing standards and practices.

But the FDA’s nine-day inspection of the Baltimore facility, which began April 12, revealed that Emergent wasn’t putting that money to good use. FDA inspectors logged a long list of problems, including unsanitary conditions, paint peeling off of the walls and floors, black and brown residue on surfaces, improperly trained staff, and numerous opportunities for vaccine products to be contaminated. For instance, inspectors witnessed Emergent employees dragging unsealed, non-decontaminated bags of medical waste across different areas of the facility. In some cases, employees tossed unsealed bags of medical waste in an elevator.

Though Emergent had already scrapped the initial 15 million contaminated vaccine doses at the time, FDA inspectors concluded that “there is no assurance that other batches have not been subject to cross contamination,” the inspectors wrote.

The FDA shut down production April 16 and has been sorting through the premade doses ever since. For the most part, Emergent’s failures have not had a significant impact on vaccination efforts in the US. All of the doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine administered in the US were made in the Netherlands. And demand for the one-shot vaccine has slipped amid slowed vaccination rates and concern over an extremely rare but life-threatening blood-clotting condition. In fact, US regulators recently extended the expiration data on millions of doses that have gone unused. AstraZeneca’s vaccine, meanwhile, is not yet authorized for use in the US.

However, Emergent’s failures have global effects—many of the doses have been earmarked to be donated to other countries in need of vaccine supplies. The contamination problem has held up the export of potentially usable doses.

In a statement Tuesday after the FDA cleared the additional 15 million doses, Emergent said:

We welcome the approval of an additional batch of J&J vaccine made at Emergent. We remain committed to addressing the FDA’s observations in order to resume production as soon as possible and look forward to continuing our work to end this pandemic.

Federal officials stripped Emergent of its control of the Baltimore facility back in April, putting Johnson & Johnson in charge and telling AstraZeneca to find another manufacturer. Federal lawmakers, meanwhile, opened a multipronged investigation into whether Emergent used ties to the Trump administration to improperly obtain lucrative government contracts.

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Cold-War-era missile launches three modern-day spy satellites

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Enlarge / A Minotaur rocket launches the NROL-111 mission on Tuesday.

Trevor Mahlmann

For the first time in nearly eight years, a Minotaur 1 rocket launched into space Tuesday from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket, which is derived from Cold-War-era surplus missiles, carried three classified satellites into orbit for the US National Reconnaissance Office.

This was the first launch of the four-stage Minotaur 1 rocket since a demonstration mission for the Air Force in 2013, which also orbited 23 CubeSats. Although the current mission was delayed for more than two hours by poor weather on Tuesday morning, it successfully launched at 9:35 am ET (13:35 UTC).

The Minotaur 1, which has the capacity to launch a little more than 500 kg into low Earth orbit, is a mix of decades-old technology and modern avionics. The vehicle’s first and second stages are taken from a repurposed Minuteman I missile, the first generation of land-based, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles. These missiles were in service from 1962 to 1965 before they were phased out in favor of the Minuteman II and Minuteman III missiles. The latter ICBMs are still in silos today.

To configure the Minotaur 1 rocket for satellite launches, engineers added two additional stages based on Orion solid rocket motors. These orbital rockets are now built and launched by Northrop Grumman. In addition to the Minotaur 1 vehicle, the company also supports the larger Minotaur C and Minotaur IV launch vehicles based on Peacekeeper missiles.

The small rockets are not cheap. This Minotaur I launch cost the Air Force $29.2 million when it procured the rocket for the National Reconnaissance Office in 2016. By contrast, Relativity Space, Firefly, and ABL Space are all developing rockets more capable than the Minotaur 1, with about 1 metric ton of lift capacity, at a fraction of its cost.

However, the Minotaur line of vehicles has a perfect record across 28 missions, having launched from Alaska, California, Florida, and Virginia with 100 percent success. The US military values this kind of reliability and the operational readiness of a solid-motor rocket.

Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, chief of the Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise’s Small Launch and Targets Division, said in a statement that she is looking forward to future launches from Northrop Grumman: “This success continues to reinforce that the Launch Enterprise has multiple paths to rapidly acquire agile launch services for small satellites and will continue to take advantage of the latest in small launch technologies.”

As for the top-secret payloads launched Tuesday, it’s a good bet they are spy satellites of some sort. The National Reconnaissance Office is charged with a “mission of providing critical information to every member of the Intelligence Community, two dozen domestic agencies, our nation’s military, lawmakers, and decision makers.” So they’re probably reading this article—from space.

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