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AI-Designed Serotonin Sensor May Help Scientists Study Sleep, Mental Health

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By ANI | Updated: 25 December 2020

In an article in Cell, National Institutes of Health-funded researchers described how they used advanced genetic engineering techniques to transform a bacterial protein into a new research tool that may help monitor serotonin transmission with greater fidelity than current methods.

Preclinical experiments, primarily in mice, showed that the sensor could detect subtle, real-time changes in brain serotonin levels during sleep, fear, and social interactions, as well as test the effectiveness of new psychoactive drugs.

The study was funded, in part, by the NIH”s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative which aims to revolutionize our understanding of the brain under healthy and disease conditions.

The study was led by researchers in the lab of Lin Tian, PhD, principal investigator at the University of California Davis School of Medicine. Current methods can only detect broad changes in serotonin signaling. In this study, the researchers transformed a nutrient-grabbing, Venus flytrap-shaped bacterial protein into a highly sensitive sensor that fluorescently lights up when it captures serotonin.

Previously, scientists in the lab of Loren L. Looger, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research Campus, Ashburn, Virginia, used traditional genetic engineering techniques to convert the bacterial protein into a sensor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

The protein, called OpuBC, normally snags the nutrient choline, which has a similar shape to acetylcholine. For this study, the Tian lab worked with Dr. Looger”s team and the lab of Viviana Gradinaru, Ph.D., Caltech, Pasadena, California, to show that they needed the added help of artificial intelligence to completely redesign OpuBC as a serotonin catcher.

The researchers used machine learning algorithms to help a computer ”think up” 250,000 new designs. After three rounds of testing, the scientists settled on one. Initial experiments suggested that the new sensor reliably detected serotonin at different levels in the brain while having little or no reaction to other neurotransmitters or similarly shaped drugs.

Experiments in mouse brain slices showed that the sensor responded to serotonin signals sent between neurons at synaptic communications points. Meanwhile, experiments on cells in petri dishes suggested that the sensor could effectively monitor changes in these signals caused by drugs, including cocaine, MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and several commonly used antidepressants.

Finally, experiments in mice showed that the sensor could help scientists study serotonin neurotransmission under more natural conditions. For instance, the researchers witnessed an expected rise in serotonin levels when mice were awake and a fall as mice fell asleep.

They also spotted a greater drop when the mice eventually entered the deeper, R.E.M. sleep states. Traditional serotonin monitoring methods would have missed these changes. In addition, the scientists saw serotonin levels rise differently in two separate brain fear circuits when mice were warned of a foot shock by a ringing bell.

In one circuit – the medial prefrontal cortex – the bell triggered serotonin levels to rise fast and high whereas in the other – the basolateral amygdala – the transmitter crept up to slightly lower levels.

In the spirit of the BRAIN Initiative, the researchers plan to make the sensor readily available to other scientists. They hope that it will help researchers gain a better understanding of the critical role serotonin plays in our daily lives and in many psychiatric conditions.

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NASA’s Halted Rocket Test Could Stall Moon Shot, Redo Possible

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By Assoicated Press | Updated: 20 January 2021

NASA is considering a second firing of its Moon rocket engines after a critical test came up short over the weekend, a move that could bump the first flight in the Artemis lunar-landing programme into next year.

The space agency had aimed to launch its new Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket and an empty Orion capsule by the end of this year, with the capsule flying to the Moon and back as a prelude to crew missions. But that date could be in jeopardy following Saturday’s aborted test.

“We have a shot at flying it this year, but we need to get through this next step,” said Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human spaceflight office.

All four engines fired for barely a minute, rather than the intended eight minutes, on the test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The countdown rehearsal for the 212-foot (65-metre) core stage — made by Boeing — included the liquid hydrogen and oxygen tanks, as well as the all necessary computers and electronics.

On Tuesday, NASA attributed the automatic shutdown to the strict test limits meant to protect the core stage so it can be used on the first Artemis flight. The hydraulic system for one engine exceeded safety parameters, officials said, and flight computers shut everything down 67 seconds into the ignition.

Two other engine-related issues also occurred.

NASA said it can adjust the test limits if a second test is deemed necessary, to prevent another premature shutdown. Engineers will continue to analyse the data, as managers debate the pros and cons of proceeding with a second test firing at Stennis or shipping the rocket straight to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for launch preparations. Some of that Kennedy work might be able to be streamlined, Lueders said.

This core stage can be loaded with super-cold fuel no more than nine times, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters Tuesday evening. A second full-blown test firing would reduce the remaining number of fill-ups.

The Artemis programme is working to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2024, a deadline set by the Trump administration. It’s uncertain how the incoming White House will approach that timeline.

In its annual report Tuesday, the Aereospace Safety Advisory Panel urged NASA to develop a realistic schedule for its Artemis Moon programme and called into question the 2024 date for returning astronauts to the lunar surface.

On the eve of his departure from NASA, Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, stressed that key programmes like Artemis need to encompass multiple administrations, decades and even generations. It’s crucial , he said, that “we’ve got buy-in and support from all of America and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.”

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China’s Retrieved Lunar Samples From Chang’e-5 Probe Weigh Less Than Targeted

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By Reuters | Updated: 19 January 2021

Lunar rocks retrieved by a historic Chinese mission to the Moon weighed less than initially targeted, but China is still willing to study the samples with foreign scientists, the mission’s spokesman said on Monday.

China became the third country ever to secure lunar samples when its unmanned Chang’e-5 probe, named after the mythical Moon goddess, brought back 1.731 kg (3.8 lb) of samples last month, falling short of the 2 kg (4.4 lb) planned.

The probe had estimated the lunar rocks to have a density of 1.6 grams per cubic millimetre, based on data from past missions by other countries, said Pei Zhaoyu, the mission spokesman.

Going by that figure, the probe stopped taking samples after just 12 hours, apparently assessing that the target had been reached.

“However, from tests, the actual density might not be that high,” Pei told reporters. “We originally planned to use 22 hours to complete the work of surface sampling, but, in fact, we stopped after 12 hours.”

But China is still open to cooperating with all nations in studying the samples, he said, including the United States.

For years, US laws have limited its space agency NASA from directly cooperating with China.

“We didn’t set restrictions between countries,” Pei said. “Whether or not two countries could carry out related cooperation is a matter for two sides.”

China has not yet received any access request for samples, he said, adding that the rocks were still in a pre-treatment stage.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit Reaches Space for the First Time With Its Air-Launched Rocket

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By Reuters | Updated: 18 January 2021

Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reached space for the first time on Sunday with a successful test of its air-launched rocket, delivering ten NASA satellites to orbit and achieving a key milestone after aborting the rocket’s first test launch last year.

The Long Beach, California-based company’s LauncherOne rocket was dropped mid-air from the underside of a modified Boeing 747 nicknamed Cosmic Girl some 35,000 feet over the Pacific at 11:39am PT (1:09am IST) before lighting its NewtonThree engine to boost itself out of Earth’s atmosphere, demonstrating its first successful trek to space.

“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!” the company announced on Twitter during the test mission, dubbed Launch Demo 2. “In both a literal and figurative sense, this is miles beyond how far we reached in our first Launch Demo.”

Roughly two hours after its Cosmic Girl carrier craft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California, the rocket, a 70-foot launcher tailored for carrying small satellites to space, successfully placed 10 tiny satellites in orbit for NASA, the company said on Twitter.

The rocket, a 70-foot launcher tailored for carrying small satellites to space, aimed to place 10 tiny satellites in orbit for NASA roughly two hours into the mission, though Virgin Orbit had not confirmed whether they were deployed as planned.

The successful test and clean payload deployment was a needed double-win for Virgin Orbit, which last year failed its attempt to reach space when LauncherOne’s main engine shut down prematurely moments after releasing from its carrier aircraft. The shortened mission generated key test data for the company, it said.

Sunday’s test also thrusts Virgin Orbit into an increasingly competitive commercial space race, offering a unique “air-launch” method of sending satellites to orbit alongside rivals such as Rocket Lab and Firefly Aerospace, which have designed small-launch systems to inject smaller satellites into orbit and meet growing demand.

Virgin executives say high-altitude launches allow satellites to be placed in their intended orbit more efficiently and also minimize weather-related cancellations compared to more traditional rockets launched vertically from a ground pad.

Virgin Orbit’s government services subsidiary VOX Space LLC is selling launches using the system to the US military, with a first mission slated for October under a $35 million (roughly Rs. 250 crores) US Space Force contract for three missions.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin Aims to Fly First Space Passengers by April: Report

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By Reuters | Updated: 15 January 2021

Billionaire Jeff Bezos-owned space company Blue Origin aims to carry the first passengers on its New Shepard space vehicle as early as April, CNBC reported on Thursday, citing people familiar with the matter.

Blue Origin completed the fourteenth test flight of its New Shepard rocket booster and capsule on Thursday, marking one of the last remaining steps before the company flies its first crew to space, the report said.

Responding to a Reuters request for comment on the report, a company spokesperson said “this is rumour and speculative – not confirmed.”

The CNBC report said Blue Origin aims to launch the second test flight within six weeks, or by late February, and the first crewed flight six weeks after that, or by early April.

In December last year, Bezos said that Blue Origin will take the first woman to the moon’s surface.

“This (BE-7) is the engine that will take the first woman to the surface of the Moon,” Bezos said in a post on Instagram with a video of the engine test this week at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The BE-7 engine, which Blue Origin has been developing for years, has tallied 1,245 seconds of test-fire time and will power the company’s National Team Human Landing System lunar lander.

Blue Origin leads a “national team” as the prime contractor that it assembled in 2019 to help build its Blue Moon lander. That team includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.

Blue Origin has vied for lucrative government contracts in recent years and is competing with rival billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Dynetics, owned by Leidos Holdings, to win a contract to build NASA’s next human lunar landing system to ferry humans to the moon in the next decade.

In April, NASA awarded a lunar lander development contract to Blue Origin’s team worth $579 million (roughly Rs. 4,300 crores), as well as two other companies: SpaceX which received $135 million (roughly Rs. 1,000 crores) to help develop its Starship system and Leidos-owned Dynetics which won $253 million (roughly Rs. 1,900 crores).

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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NASA InSight Mars Digger Bites the Dust After Two Years on Red Planet

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By Associated Press | Updated: 15 January 2021

NASA declared the Mars digger dead Thursday after failing to burrow deep into the red planet to take its temperature.

Scientists in Germany spent two years trying to get their heat probe, dubbed the mole, to drill into the Martian crust. But the 16-inch-long (40-centimetre) device that is part of NASA’s InSight lander couldn’t gain enough friction in the red dirt. It was supposed to bury 16 feet (5 meters) into Mars, but only drilled down a couple of feet (about a half metre).

Following one last unsuccessful attempt to hammer itself down over the weekend with 500 strokes, the team called it quits.

“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” said the German Space Agency’s Tilman Spohn, the lead scientist for the experiment.

The effort will benefit future excavation efforts at Mars, he added in a statement. Astronauts one day may need to dig into Mars, according to NASA, in search of frozen water for drinking or making fuel, or signs of past microscopic life.

The mole’s design was based on Martian soil examined by previous spacecraft. That turned out nothing like the clumpy dirt encountered this time.

InSight’s French seismometer, meanwhile, has recorded nearly 500 Marsquakes, while the lander’s weather station is providing daily reports. On Tuesday, the high was 17 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 8 degrees Celsius) and the low was minus 56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 49 degrees Celsius) at Mars’ Elysium Planitia, an equatorial plain.

The lander recently was granted a two-year extension for scientific work, now lasting until the end of 2022.

InSight landed on Mars in November 2018. It will be joined by NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, which will attempt a touchdown on February 18. The Curiosity rover has been roaming Mars since 2012.

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Scientists Create ‘Bluebot’, Underwater Robots That Swim Like Schools of Fish

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 14 January 2021

Inspired by how schools of fish intuitively synchronise their movements, Harvard scientists have engineered miniature underwater robots capable of forming autonomous swarms.

Each robotic fish, known as a Bluebot, is equipped with cameras and blue LED lights that sense the direction and distance of others inside water tanks.

They swim using flapping fins rather than propellers, which improves their efficiency and maneuverability compared to standard underwater drones.

“It’s definitely useful for future applications — for example a search mission in the open ocean where you want to find people in distress and rescue them quickly,” said Florian Berlinger, the lead author of a paper about the research that appeared in Science Robotics on Wednesday.

Other applications could include environmental monitoring or inspecting infrastructure.

Existing underwater multi robot systems rely on individual robots communicating with each other over radio and transmitting their GPS positions.

The new system moves closer to mimicking the natural behavior of fish, which show complex, coordinated behavior without following a leader.

The 3D printed robots are about 10 centimetres (4 inches) long, and their design was partly inspired by Blue tang fish that are native to the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific.

The robots use their camera “eyes” to detect other robots in their peripheral vision, then engage in self-organising behaviour, which include flashing their lights simultaneously, arranging themselves in a circle, and gathering around a target.

Berlinger described a test in which the robots were spread out across a water tank to seek out a light source.

When one of the robots found the light, it sent out a signal to the others to gather around, in a demonstration of a search-and-rescue mission.

“Other researchers have reached out to me already to use my Bluebots as fish surrogates for biological studies on fish swimming and schooling,” said Berlinger, explaining that the robot collectives can help us learn more about collective intelligence in nature.

He hopes to improve the design so that it doesn’t require LEDs and can be used outside laboratory settings such as in coral reefs.

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