GM Moths, A Double-Charmed Baryon, and Drilling Dandelions Into Your Yard | Vol. 4 / No. 37

Photo: gbohne, CC BY-SA 2.0

This week we’ve got stories on releasing genetically-modified moths into the wild, the LHC finding a new, “charming” particle, and the latest spinoff from Alphabet’s X labs, a home geothermal company calling itself Dandelion. It’s the news roundup for Sunday, July 9, 2017!

GM Moths

The US is getting ready to release genetically-modified moths in an attempt to control a pest population, and for the first time, it’s “outside the sandbox,” so to speak. The diamondback moths, whose caterpillars do billions in damage to cruciferous crops every year, will be modified to pass on a gene which (if I understand it) makes female offspring die before reaching maturity. Before you go getting too concerned though, this is not the first time we’ve done something like this. For decades, we’ve been releasing sterilized insects to cause population crashes in pest populations, but this has typically been done with radiation, and doesn’t work with all insects. And this isn’t a “gene drive” either—because all the offspring with the new gene die off before reaching maturity, it doesn’t progress through the population. A review by the USDA has found that the plan would have “no significant impact” on humans or the environment, too, so really, the worst thing that could happen at this point is that it doesn’t kill the moths that are eating your cabbage and broccoli. The modified moths being released are adults, too, so there’s no danger of extra caterpillars eating the crops. The company producing them, the UK-based Oxitec, is also planning a similar trial to reduce the number of AE mosquitos in the Florida keys, which I think we can all be hopeful about, too. You can read more about the trial over at MIT Technology Review or at Gizmodo.


Because photos of the LHCb are hard to find | Photo: CERN, CC BY-SA 3.0


The Large Hadron Collider’s “beauty” experiment (LHCb) has found a new particle, and the news is making waves. Called Xi-CC++ (pronounced ksai-see-see-plus-plus, or the double charmed Xi baryon), it’s about 3.8 times the mass of a proton. It’s not exactly stable either: estimates of its lifespan top out at about a trillionth of a second, but it could be far shorter. The difference is to do with the bits it’s made of. A proton is made up of three quarks, two “up” and one “down.” But the Xi-CC++ particle is made up of one “up” and two “charm” quarks. This makes it a lot heavier than more common baryons (like protons) which are typically made up of the lighter “flavours” of quarks. The structure is interesting, too: the two heavy “charm” quarks sit at the center of the particle, while the much lighter “up” quark spins around it, not unlike a planet orbiting a binary star. While the new particle is predicted by the Standard Model (and thus won’t lead to new physics in that sense), its structure will allow scientists to better study certain aspects of the forces that hold particles together. For more on the story, you can check out the NYT or Scientific American.

Image: Dandelion

Dandelion Geothermal

X labs, the division of Alphabet that comes up with crazy new ideas, has just spun off a company calling itself Dandelion, and there’s a good chance it’s going to make a big difference in the way America heats and cools its homes. The company installs geothermal heating and cooling systems that use the relatively constant 50°f of the Earth to heat your house in the winter and cool it in the summer. Essentially, they’ve made advances in drilling technologies that allow them to significantly drop the costs of installation. They can come and drill just the four-inch-wide holes for the closed-loop water pipes and install the system in the space of a day without messing up your backyard. It’ll cost about $20,000, but with the zero-down loans they’re offering and the amount of savings on heating and air conditioning, they’re predicting that it’ll lower the monthly heating and cooling costs for most customers from the very first month. According to the company’s FAQ the heat pump should last 25 years and the pipes at least 50, so it looks as though they’ve found a price point that makes it suddenly realistic. Expect this to be added to Tesla’s home solar/powerwall systems for some of the greenest homes around. They’re starting the roll-out in upstate New York and going national from there. You can read more at the X labs’ blog and at the company’s website.


Best of the Rest

Because I can’t get to everything, here’s a list of other things I saw. It’s your weekly linkspam!

That’s all for today. Have a great week.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.