Hummingbirds get a bit of alcohol with their food

New research digs into how much alcohol hummingbirds consume.

Your backyard hummingbird feeder filled with sugar water is a natural experiment in fermentation—yeast settle in and turn some of the sugar into alcohol.

The same is true of nectar-filled flowers, which are an ideal gathering place for yeast—a type of fungus—and for bacteria that metabolize sugar and produce ethanol.

To biologist Robert Dudley, this raises a host of questions. How much alcohol do hummingbirds consume in their daily quest for sustenance? Are they attracted to alcohol or repelled by it? Since alcohol is a natural byproduct of the sugary fruit and floral nectar that plants produce, is ethanol an inevitable part of the diet of hummingbirds and many other animals?

“Hummingbirds are eating 80% of their body mass a day in nectar,” says Dudley, professor of integrative biology at University of California, Berkeley. “Most of it is water and the remainder sugar. But even if there are very low concentrations of ethanol, that volumetric consumption would yield a high dosage of ethanol, if it were out there. Maybe, with feeders, we’re not only [feeding] hummingbirds, we’re providing a seat at the bar every time they come in.”

During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it became difficult to test these questions in the wilds of Central America and Africa, where there are nectar-feeding sunbirds, he tasked several undergraduate students with experimenting on the hummers visiting the feeder outside his office window to find out whether alcohol in sugar water was a turn-off or a turn-on. All three of the test subjects were male Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna), year-round residents of the Bay Area.

The results of that study, which appears in the journal Royal Society Open Science, demonstrate that hummingbirds happily sip from sugar water with up to 1% alcohol by volume, finding it just as attractive as plain sugar water.

They appear to be only moderate tipplers, however, because they sip only half as much as normal when the sugar water contains 2% alcohol.

“They’re consuming the same total amount of ethanol, they’re just reducing the volume of the ingested 2% solution. So that was really interesting,” Dudley says. “That was a kind of a threshold effect and suggested to us that whatever’s out there in the real world, it’s probably not exceeding 1.5%.”

When he and his colleagues tested the alcohol level in sugar water that had sat in the feeder for two weeks, they found a much lower concentration: about 0.05% by volume.

“Now, 0.05% just doesn’t sound like much, and it’s not. But again, if you’re eating 80% of your body weight a day, at .05% of ethanol you’re getting a substantial load of ethanol relative to your body mass,” he says. “So it’s all consistent with the idea that there’s a natural, chronic exposure to physiologically significant levels of ethanol derived from this nutritional source.”

“They burn the alcohol and metabolize it so quickly. Likewise with the sugars. So they’re probably not seeing any real effect. They’re not getting drunk,” he adds.

The research is part of a long-term project by Dudley and his colleagues—herpetologist Jim McGuire and bird expert Rauri Bowie, both professors of integrative biology and curators at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. They seek to understand the role that alcohol plays in animal diets, particularly in the tropics, where fruits and sugary nectar easily ferment, and alcohol cannot help but be consumed by fruit-eating or nectar-sipping animals.

“Does alcohol have any behavioral effect? Does it stimulate feeding at low levels? Does it motivate more frequent attendance of a flower if they get not just sugar, but also ethanol? I don’t have the answers to these questions. But that’s experimentally tractable,” he says.

Part of this project, funded by the National Science Foundation, involves testing the alcohol content of fruits in Africa and nectar in flowers in the UC Botanical Garden. No systematic studies of the alcohol content of fruits and nectars, or of alcohol consumption by nectar-sipping birds, insects, or mammals, or by fruit-eating animals—including primates—have been done.

But several isolated studies are suggestive. A 2008 study found that the nectar in palm flowers consumed by pen-tailed tree shrews, which are small, ratlike animals in West Malaysia, had levels of alcohol as high as 3.8% by volume. Another study, published in 2015, found a relatively high alcohol concentration—up to 3.8%—in the nectar eaten by the slow loris, a type of primate, and that both slow lorises and aye-ayes, another primate, preferred nectar with higher alcohol content.

The new study shows that birds are also likely consuming alcohol produced by natural fermentation.

“This is the first demonstration of ethanol consumption by birds, quote, in the wild. I’ll use that phrase cautiously because it’s a lab experiment and feeder measurement,” Dudley says. “But the linkage with the natural flowers is obvious. This just demonstrates that nectar-feeding birds, not just nectar-feeding mammals, not just fruit-eating animals, are all potentially exposed to ethanol as a natural part of their diet.”

The next step, he says, is to measure how much ethanol is naturally found in flowers and determine how frequently it’s being consumed by birds. He plans to extend his study to include Old World sunbirds and honey eaters in Australia, both of which occupy the nectar-sipping niche that hummingbirds have in America.

Dudley has been obsessed with alcohol use and misuse for years, and in his book, The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink and Abuse Alcohol (University of California Press, 2014), presented evidence that humans’ attraction to alcohol is an evolutionary adaptation to improve survival among primates. Only with the coming of industrial alcohol production has our attraction turned, in many cases, into alcohol abuse.

“Why do humans drink alcohol at all, as opposed to vinegar or any of the other 10 million organic compounds out there? And why do most humans actually metabolize it, burn it, and use it pretty effectively, often in conjunction with food, but then some humans also consume to excess?” he asks.

“I think, to get a better understanding of human attraction to alcohol, we really have to have better animal model systems, but also a realization that the natural availability of ethanol is actually substantial, not just for primates that are feeding on fruit and nectar, but also for a whole bunch of other birds and mammals and insects that are also feeding on flowers and fruits,” he says. “The comparative biology of ethanol consumption may yield insight into modern day patterns of consumption and abuse by humans.”

This work received support from the National Science Foundation and UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program.

Source: UC Berkeley


Microwaving insecticide could keep bed nets working

To make the insecticide deltamethrin more effective, researchers are turning to the microwave.

Deltamethrin is an insecticide that is commonly incorporated into bed nets to fight mosquitoes that carry malaria. But some mosquitoes have become resistant to it, making the nets less effective and increasing the risk of disease.

Now, experiments by New York University chemistry professor Bart Kahr and colleagues show that heating up insecticides can rearrange their crystal structure, yielding new forms that may work better against mosquitoes. They started their research with DDT before moving on to deltamethrin, as Kahr explains in the video above.

Science News reported on this encouraging development to counter the problem of insecticide resistance.

Kahr and colleagues report their findings in Malaria Journal.

Source: NYU


How the Lengya virus enters human cells

New findings shed light on how the highly infectious Lengya virus, which has recently transferred from animals to people, is able to enter human cells.

Ariel Isaacs and Yu Shang Low of the University of Queensland have uncovered the structure of the fusion protein of Langya virus, which was discovered in people in eastern China in August 2022.

Isaacs says the virus caused fever and severe respiratory symptoms and was from the same class of viruses as the deadly Nipah and Hendra viruses.

“We’re at an important juncture with viruses from the Henipavirus genus, as we can expect more spill over events from animals to people,” Isaacs says. “It’s important we understand the inner workings of these emerging viruses, which is where our work comes in.”

The team used molecular clamp technology to hold the fusion protein of the Langya virus in place to uncover the atomic structure using cryogenic electron microscopy at the university’s Centre for Microscopy & Microanalysis.

“Understanding the structure and how it enters cells is a critical step towards developing vaccines and treatments to combat Henipavirus infections,” says Isaacs. “There are currently no treatments or vaccines for them, and they have the potential to cause a widespread outbreak.”

Associate professor Daniel Watterson, a senior researcher on the project, says they also saw that the Langya virus fusion protein structure is similar to the deadly Hendra virus, which first emerged in southeast Queensland in 1994.

“These are viruses that can cause severe disease and have the potential to get out of control if we’re not properly prepared,” Watterson says. “We saw with COVID-19 how unprepared the world was for a widespread viral outbreak and we want to be better equipped for the next outbreak.”

The researchers will now work to develop broad-spectrum human vaccines and treatments for Henipaviruses, such as Langya, Nipah, and Hendra.

The research appears Nature Communications. Support came from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the Queensland and Australian governments, and philanthropic partners.

Source: University of Queensland


Poor sense of smell tied to higher depression risk in older adults

Researchers say they have significant new evidence of a link between decreased sense of smell and risk of developing late-life depression.

Their findings in Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences do not demonstrate that loss of smell causes depression, but suggests that it may serve as a potent indicator of overall health and well-being.

“We’ve seen repeatedly that a poor sense of smell can be an early warning sign of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, as well as a mortality risk. This study underscores its association with depressive symptoms,” says Vidya Kamath, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Additionally, this study explores factors that might influence the relationship between olfaction and depression, including poor cognition and inflammation,” Kamath says.

The study used data gathered from 2,125 participants in a federal government study known as the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study (Health ABC). This cohort was composed of a group of healthy older adults ages 70–73 at the start of the eight-year study period in 1997–98. Participants showed no difficulties in walking 0.25 miles, climbing 10 steps, or performing normal activities at the start of the study, and were assessed in person annually and by phone every six months. Tests included those for the ability to detect certain odors, depression, and mobility assessments.

In 1999, when smell was first measured, 48% of participants displayed a normal sense of smell, 28% showed a decreased sense of smell, known as hyposmia, and 24% had a profound loss of the sense, known as anosmia. Participants with a better sense of smell tended to be younger than those reporting significant loss or hyposmia.

Over follow-up, 25% of participants developed significant depressive symptoms. When analyzed further, researchers found that individuals with decreased or significant loss of smell had increased risk of developing significant depressive symptoms at longitudinal follow-up than those in the normal olfaction group. Participants with a better sense of smell tended to be younger than those reporting significant loss or hyposomia.

Researchers also identified three depressive symptom “trajectories” in the study group: stable low, stable moderate, and stable high depressive symptoms. Poorer sense of smell was associated with an increased chance of a participant falling into the moderate or high depressive symptoms groups, meaning that the worse a person’s sense of smell, the higher their depressive symptoms. These findings persisted after adjusting for age, income, lifestyle, health factors, and use of antidepressant medication.

“Losing your sense of smell influences many aspects of our health and behavior, such as sensing spoiled food or noxious gas, and eating enjoyment. Now we can see that it may also be an important vulnerability indicator of something in your health gone awry,” says Kamath. “Smell is an important way to engage with the world around us, and this study shows it may be a warning sign for late-life depression.”

Humans’ sense of smell is one of two chemical senses. It works through specialized sensory cells, called olfactory neurons, which are found in the nose. These neurons have one odor receptor; it picks up molecules released by substances around us, which are then relayed to the brain for interpretation. The higher the concentration of these smell molecules the stronger the smell, and different combinations of molecules result in different sensations.

Smell is processed in the brain’s olfactory bulb, which is believed to interact closely with the amygdala, hippocampus, and other brain structures that regulate and enable memory, decision-making, and emotional responses.

The researchers say their study suggests that olfaction and depression may be linked through both biological (e.g., altered serotonin levels, brain volume changes) and behavioral (e.g., reduced social function and appetite) mechanisms.

The researchers plan to replicate their findings from this study in more groups of older adults, and examine changes to individuals’ olfactory bulbs to determine if this system is in fact altered in those diagnosed with depression. They also plan to examine if smell can be used in intervention strategies to mitigate risk of late-life depression.

Additional scientists who contributed to this research are from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health; the University of Connecticut; the University of California, San Francisco; the National Institute on Aging; and Michigan State University.

No authors declared conflicts of interest related to this research under Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine policies.

Support for the work came from the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Nursing Research and the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Aging.

Source: Johns Hopkins


In Europe, ancestral family ties predict politics today

The stronger your ancestral family ties, the more likely you are to hold right-wing cultural policy preferences, research finds.

A new study from Neil Fasching and Yphtach Lelkes of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication finds that the family structure of one’s ancestors—sometimes dating back thousands of years—reliably predicts their political beliefs today. If you come from a family line with strong kinship ties (who typically live with extended family and marry within their community), you’re likely to hold right-wing cultural values, and among some, left-wing economic attitudes.

“Interestingly, we find evidence that the association isn’t just with the individual beliefs,” says Fasching, a doctoral student studying political communication. “It plays out even at the country and legislative level. If a country’s population is rooted in close, tight-knit families, that country is less likely to pass LGBTQ-friendly laws, for example.”

In order to trace the effects of ancestral kinship strength on contemporary political attitudes, Fasching and Lelkes assigned “kinship tightness scores” to more than 20,000 second-generation immigrants living in 32 European countries. They chose second-generation immigrants in order to disentangle the respondents’ current location from their ancestors’ location.

The researchers crunched the numbers, using data on individuals’ beliefs, values, ethnic groups, and the degree to which a person’s ethnic group has historically depended on hunter-gathering versus agriculture, to determine the association between right-wing beliefs and family structure. Fasching and Lelkes also measured individuals’ political engagement.

Modern family kinship structure is determined by many factors, the researchers say, but most commonly, it is based on who family members are allowed to marry, geographic distance to extended family, and trust of outsiders.

These structures can date back to early civilization, when hunter-gatherers searched for game and Neolithic humans farmed crops and bred animals. Hunter-gatherers tended to have relatively weak family ties due to their need to travel to find food. It was easiest for these societies to revolve around the nuclear family, rather than establish permanent settlements with extended families and strong kinship ties.

The researchers found that kinship strength is strongly associated with more anti-LGBT laws. Countries low on kinship tightness, such as Norway, Finland, Germany, and the United States, were much less likely to have implemented anti-LGBT laws, while countries high on kinship tightness, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Grenada, and Liberia, were much more likely to have anti-LGBT laws.

“While policy decisions may seem like they’re driven by current or transient factors, our research shows that public policy is also deeply rooted in the cultural fabric of a society,” says Lelkes, associate professor of communication at Annenberg and co-director of the Polarization Research Lab and the Center for Information Networks and Democracy.

“Ancestral family kinship structures are a part of that cultural fabric and can shape the fundamental values and social norms that underpin our societies. These structures were formed based on the environment in which our ancestors lived and can have a significant influence on the policies that are ultimately adopted.”

The findings appear in the British Journal of Political Science.

Source: Penn


Findings suggest future meds for natural killer/T-cell lymphoma

A new study finds an increase in transcription factor TOX2 in people with natural killer/T-cell lymphoma.

The increased TOX2 level leads to the growth and spread of natural killer/T-cell lymphoma (NKTL), as well as the overproduction of PRL-3, an oncogenic phosphatase that is a known key player in the survival and metastasis of several other types of cancers.

This breakthrough discovery presents a potential novel therapeutic target to treat NKTL.

NKTL is an Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) associated, aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) with very poor treatment outcomes in the advanced stages. It is prevalent in Asia and Latin America but rare in Europe and North America. Combined radiation therapy and chemotherapy is the consensus standard therapy for NKTL, however, they are also often associated with high relapse rate and serious side effects. Improved knowledge of the molecular mechanism leading to NKTL progression, as well as the development of novel targeted therapy strategies, has to be addressed urgently.

Professor Chng Wee Joo and associate professor Takaomi Sanda from the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore (CSI Singapore), along with Ong Choon Kiat from Duke-NUS Medical School, report the findings in the journal Molecular Cancer.

The findings are also the first to show the involvement of TOX2 and PRL-3 in NKTL. They validated the findings in both cell lines and in a large set of patient tumor samples. In addition, the team analyzed the clinical features of 42 NKTL cases in an independent cohort and found that TOX2 was not only overexpressed in NKTL primary tumors, but also negatively associated with patient survival.

Currently, there are no TOX2-specific inhibitors. As such, targeting TOX2, or its downstream PRL-3, could be a valuable therapeutic intervention for NKTL patients and warrants further study.

Chng, who is the co-lead author of the study, says, “We have now identified novel treatment targets, TOX2 and the downstream PRL3, in NKTL, where new treatment is greatly needed. We can use different strategies to target these. Proteolysis-targeting chimera (PROTAC) targeting TOX2 to degrade TOX2 protein may be a viable NKTL therapy option.

“A humanized antibody, PRL3-zumab, has been approved for phase 2 clinical trials in Singapore, US, and China to treat all solid tumors. With our findings from this study, it is definitely timely to evaluate PRL3-zumab’s effect in patient with NKTL.”

Moving forward, the group is currently testing novel agents for targeting TOX2 and PRL-3 in NKTL. The long-term goal is to bring these novel agents into clinical trials.

Source: National University of Singapore


Force of hits, not just number, raises CTE risk

The clearest predictor of what could cause a person to suffer the brain disease CTE later in life is the cumulative force of thousands of hits to the head, and not just the sheer volume of concussions, research shows.

For years, researchers studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, believed the primary cause of it was repetitive hits to the head, whether or not those hits caused concussions. They believed the more frequently that a person sustained head blows, the more likely they were to develop neurological and cognitive struggles later in life.

The new study in Nature Communications adds a wrinkle to the research.

The study is the largest one to date, examining root causes of CTE, which is associated with everything from memory loss to impulsive behavior to suicidal thoughts and depression.

Using data from 34 published studies that tracked blows to the head measured by sensors inside of football helmets, the researchers were able to see how 631 former football players, whose brains were donated for research to Boston University, have been affected.

The study found that 71% of the brains examined—451 of the 631—had some level of CTE, while 180 showed no sign of the disease. The worst forms of CTE showed up in players who had absorbed the greatest cumulative force of hits to the head, meaning they were hit often and hard. (The individuals who absorb the hardest hits to the head are defensive backs, wide receivers, and running backs.)

Senior author Jesse Mez is an associate professor of neurology at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, as well as the associate director of the Boston University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and codirector of clinical research at the BU CTE Center. Here he clarifies the study findings and where CTE research goes next:

The National Institutes of Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense funded the work.

Source: Doug Most for Boston University


Do 27% of patients have ‘cognitive biotype’ of depression?

A new category of depression, the cognitive biotype, accounts for 27% of depressed patients, say researchers.

Cognitive tasks show that these patients have difficulty with the ability to plan ahead, display self-control, sustain focus despite distractions, and suppress inappropriate behavior. Imaging showed decreased activity in two brain regions responsible for those tasks.

Because depression has traditionally been defined as a mood disorder, doctors commonly prescribe antidepressants that target serotonin (known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs), but these are less effective for patients with cognitive dysfunction.

The researchers say that targeting these cognitive dysfunctions with less commonly used antidepressants or other treatments may alleviate symptoms and help restore social and occupational abilities.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, is part of a broader effort by neuroscientists to find treatments that target depression biotypes, according to the study’s senior author, Leanne Williams, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“One of the big challenges is to find a new way to address what is currently a trial-and-error process so that more people can get better sooner,” Williams says. “Bringing in these objective cognitive measures like imaging will make sure we’re not using the same treatment on every patient.”

Antidepressants and MRI

In the study, 1,008 adults with previously unmedicated major depressive disorder were randomly given one of three widely prescribed typical antidepressants: escitalopram (brand name Lexapro) or sertraline (Zoloft), which act on serotonin, or venlafaxine-XR (Effexor), which acts on both serotonin and norepinephrine. Of the participants, 712 completed the eight-week regimen.

Before and after treatment with the antidepressants, the participants’ depressive symptoms were measured using two surveys: one, clinician-administered, and the other, a self-assessment, which included questions related to changes in sleep and eating. The researchers also tracked measures of social and occupation functioning, as well as quality of life.

Before and after treatment, the participants also completed a series of cognitive tests that measured verbal memory, working memory, decision speed, and sustained attention, among other tasks.

Before treatment, scientists scanned 96 of the participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging as they engaged in a task called the “GoNoGo” that requires participants to press a button as quickly as possible when they see “Go” in green and to not press when they see “NoGo” in red. The fMRI tracked neuronal activity by measuring changes in blood oxygen levels, which showed levels of activity in different brain regions corresponding to Go or NoGo responses. Researchers then compared the participants’ images with those of individuals without depression.

The researchers found that 27% of the participants had more prominent symptoms of cognitive slowing and insomnia, impaired cognitive function on behavioral tests, as well as reduced activity in certain frontal brain regions—a profile they labeled the cognitive biotype.

The cognitive biotype

“This study is crucial because psychiatrists have few measurement tools for depression to help make treatment decisions,” says Laura Hack, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “It’s mostly making observations and self-report measures. Imaging while performing cognitive tasks is rather novel in depression treatment studies.”

Pre-treatment fMRI showed those with the cognitive biotype had significantly reduced activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate regions during the GoNoGo task compared with the activity levels in participants who did not have the cognitive biotype. Together, the two regions form the cognitive control circuit, which is responsible for limiting unwanted or irrelevant thoughts and responses and improving goal selection, among other tasks.

After treatment, the researchers found that for the three antidepressants administered, the overall remission rates—the absence of overall depression symptoms—were 38.8% for participants with the new biotype and 47.7% for those without it. This difference was most prominent for sertraline, for which the remission rates were 35.9% and 50% for those with the biotype and those without, respectively.

“Depression presents in different ways in different people, but finding commonalities—like similar profiles of brain function—helps medical professionals effectively treat participants by individualizing care,” Williams says.

Better depression treatment

Williams and Hack propose that behavior measurement and imaging could help diagnose depression biotypes and lead to better treatment. A patient could complete a survey on their own computer or in the doctor’s office, and if they are found to display a certain biotype, they might be referred to imaging for confirmation before undergoing treatment.

Researchers at the Stanford Center for Precision Mental Health and Wellness, which Williams directs, in partnership with the Stanford Translational Precision Mental Health Clinic, which Hack directs, are studying another medication—guanfacine—that specifically targets the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex region. They believe this treatment could be more effective for patients with the cognitive subtype.

Williams and Hack hope to conduct studies with participants who have the cognitive biotype, comparing different types of medication with treatments such as transcranial magnetic stimulation and cognitive behavioral therapy. In transcranial magnetic stimulation, commonly referred to as TMS, magnetic fields stimulate nerve cells; in cognitive behavioral therapy, patients are taught to use problem-solving strategies to counter negative thoughts that contribute to both emotional dysregulation and loss of social and occupational abilities.

“I regularly witness the suffering, the loss of hope, and the increase in suicidality that occurs when people are going through our trial-and-error process,” Hack says. “And it’s because we start with medications that have the same mechanism of action for everyone with depression, even though depression is quite heterogeneous. I think this study could help change that.”

Researchers from the Sierra-Pacific Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center; the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System; Brain Dynamic Centre, Westmead Institute for Medical Research; and the University of Sydney, Westmead, contributed to the work.

The study was funded through Brain Resource Company Operations Pty Ltd. and Stanford University’s Clinical and Translation Science Award Program overseen by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Stanford University


Virgin Galactic sets date and announces crew for first commercial SpaceShipTwo flight

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic plans to conduct its first fully commercial flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane on June 29, carrying three Italians who will conduct more than a dozen experiments.

Virgin Galactic announced June 26 the date for its “Galactic 01” mission, flying from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company had previously disclosed a window of June 27 to 30 for the flight.

The flight is considered the first fully commercial mission by Virgin Galactic, although the company did generate small amounts of revenue by flying research payloads on earlier test flights.

“Galactic 01 is our first commercial spaceflight and we’re honored to have been selected by the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council to support their first space research mission,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement. “Virgin Galactic’s research missions will usher in a new era of repeatable and reliable access to space for government and research institutions for years to come.”

The June 29 flight, called Virtute 1 by the Italian government, features three Italian payload specialists, commanded by Walter Villadei, a colonel in the Italian Air Force. He previously trained with NASA and Axiom Space for a commercial orbital spaceflight, becoming the backup pilot for the Ax-2 mission to the International Space Station that flew in May.

Joining Villadei are Angelo Landolfi, an Italian Air Force lieutenant colonel and physician, and Pantaleone Carlucci, a researcher with Italy’s National Research Council. The three will carry out 13 experiments before, during and after the flight, measuring cosmic radiation, testing the effects of microgravity on fluids and combustion, and collecting medical data. Villadei will wear a “smart flight suit” that will gather biomedical data while testing a suit design intended to operate at up to 6 Gs.

“We are flying payloads from multiple disciplines in one mission and are utilizing the entire flight profile to collect invaluable data,” Villadei said in a statement.

Joining the Italians in the crew cabin is Colin Bennett, a Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor who will assess the research flight experience. He flew on the SpaceShipTwo mission in July 2021 that carried company founder Richard Branson. The overall mission will be commanded by Virgin Galactic’s Mike Masucci, making his fourth flight. Nicola Pecile, a former Italian Air Force pilot who now works for Virgin, will be the pilot.

Virgin Galactic signed a contract with the Italian Air Force for the mission in October 2019, intending at the time to fly it as soon as late 2020 or early 2021. After Branson’s flight, Virgin Galactic planned to conduct the flight in the fall of 2021 before beginning a maintenance period for both SpaceShipTwo and its mothership aircraft, VMS Eve. However, the company postponed the flight in October 2021, electing to carry out the maintenance first.

Virgin resumed flights of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VMS Unity, earlier this year. That included a May 25 suborbital test flight that was the first time Unity went to space since Branson’s flight. That flight carried Virgin Galactic employees as payload specialists.

The company sees the flight as a way to highlight its ability to carry out research as an alternative market to space tourism. “This flight will showcase our distinctive spaceflight system, which allows researchers to fly with their experiments, and our capacity to offer regular access to space for the science and technology community,” said Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, in a statement.

The bulk of Virgin Galactic’s business, though, will come from private astronauts paying up to $450,000 a ticket for the flight. The company has about 800 customers for those flights. Virgin said June 15 its first flight carrying private astronauts, Galactic 02, is tentatively scheduled for early August, with subsequent flights planned on a monthly basis.


Many of those customers may end up flying on the company’s future Delta class of spaceplanes, designed for much higher flight rates. With the company’s negligible revenue to date and high operating losses, Virgin Galactic will need to raise substantial funding to develop the Delta-class vehicles.

In a June 22 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Virgin Galactic said it had completed a sale of $300 million of stock it announced in August 2022. It also announced plans to sell an additional $400 million of stock, working with Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.

The funds, Virgin stated, will be used “for development of its spaceship fleet and infrastructure to scale its commercial operations, and for general corporate purposes.”

Shares in Virgin Galactic, traded on the New York Stock Exchange, fell 18.4% June 23, effectively giving up gains since the company announced its commercial spaceflight plans June 15.


Apex raises $16 million for spacecraft factory

WASHINGTON — Apex, a startup with plans to mass-manufacture satellite buses, has raised $16 million to fund development of its first large-scale factory.

Apex announced June 22 it raised the Series A round, led by venture firms Andreessen Horowitz and Shield Capital. The company has raised more than $27 million to date, including a seed round it announced in October 2022.

The funds will be used for what the company calls Factory One, a 4,600-square-meter production facility in Los Angeles that the company will use to ramp up production of its Aries satellite bus. The company, building its first Aries spacecraft now, projects scaling up production to five in 2024, 20 in 2025 and as many as 100 in 2026.

Ian Cinnamon, chief executive of Apex, said in an interview that the company was able to raise more money than originally planned for the Series A round because of strong investor interest. “We feel incredibly grateful that it was significantly oversubscribed, where we had a lot of investors that wanted to invest that, unfortunately, we just didn’t have room to bring them in.”

He said the fundraising climate for space companies had changed in the last year because of both broader macroeonomic issues, like higher inflation and interest rates, as well as struggles among companies in the industry. That’s driving investors to companies with a near-term focus on products and services than can generate revenue, he argued.

“In today’s climate, investors are really looking for companies that have clear paths to being able to produce revenue, and business models that not only would grow massively in the future but are solid business models in today’s market,” he said. “It’s things that are real businesses today that can grow in the future.”

Apex is building its first Aries satellite, dubbed “Call to Adventure,” that it announced in April. That spacecraft remains on schedule to launch on the SpaceX Transporter-10 rideshare mission in early 2024.

That spacecraft will carry payloads for three customers: space refueling company Orbit Fab, autonomous satellite technology developer Ubotica and an unnamed “tier one” defense contractor. Cinnamon said he could not disclose that contractor other than to say it is a “household name.” That mission, he added, is now fully booked.

He said Apex has strong interest among potential customers for this first flight, so was able to find three customers with sufficiently different missions that they could be accommodated on the same spacecraft without any conflicts. However, in the future the company plans to sell satellites to individual customers rather than host multiple customers on the same satellite, a model called “condosats” in the industry.

“Part of the reason that we don’t want to continue doing condosats is that it’s not easy coordinating all those efforts,” he said.

The announcement of the funding round and customers for its first mission came shortly after Apex rolled out a tool on its website to allow customers to configure satellites. The tool, similar to those used for ordering cars or computers, offers several options for power, communications and propulsion, and lists the price of that option.

Cinnamon said the company is offering that configuration tool because it plans to offer a limited number of options for satellites, which he likened to the stock-keeping units, or SKUs, used in retail. Apex is also minimizing the amount of customization or non-recurring engineering (NRE) it offers customers.

“If you’re not doing NRE and you have a set number of SKUs, that means we know exactly what our costs are, what our labor is,” he said, enabling “transparent” pricing of its satellite buses. “We believe that the industry deserves that transparent pricing and to cut through a lot of the back-and-forth that I think slows down the industry and hampers innovation.”

He said that “thousands” had tried out the tool since it rolled it out earlier in the month, leading to inquiries from potential customers to confirm that the prices quoted online are accurate. He did not confirm if it led to any orders yet, but said the company has sold part of a second set of five satellites it is building in 2024.