Steve Pointing

Professor Steve Pointing is Director of the Institute for Applied Ecology New Zealand, AUT University. He completed his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Great Britain, with undergraduate focus in biochemistry and postgraduate study in microbiology. His doctoral research addressed marine fungal and bacterial colonization of shipwreck timbers from the Tudor warship Mary Rose. After gaining his doctorate he lived and worked in Hong Kong until 2012, conducting research on the microbial ecology of extreme environments. He now calls Auckland home, and his research focuses on environmental issues with regional and global relevance, including New Zealand’s strategic commitment to Antarctica. Steve is on Twitter @stevepointing

Humans make bacterial clouds - Pointing At Science

Sep 24, 2015

Regular readers of this blog will know how much I detest research on animals, so I decided to focus all my effort on this week’s Dear Science show to discussing scientific studies that used actual human test subjects! The first features a quirky but cool study from Jessica Green’s lab in Oregon. The paper released as an open access article in Peer J this week describes how humans create a cloud of bacteria in the air surrounding them (made me think of the Peanuts character Pig Pen).  This is not in itself surprising bearing in mind our bodies release about 10 million bacterial cells every hour, but what was interesting was the discovery that when these bacteria were sequenced it became clear the genetic signature of this cloud was unique to individuals – opening up all sorts of possibilities … Read More

Steve and Ben do science ‘doggy style’ - Pointing At Science

Sep 16, 2015

Before you get all over-excited, this blog is not about sex!  I took my dogs to the vet the other day and was inspired to do some research on man’s best friend – and this evolved into a ‘doggy special’ for my Dear Science show on bFM radio this week: Some highlights from the show Dog nutrition: I do some ‘myth-busting ‘ about canine nutrition, tackling questions that include: Is giving a dog a biscuit really the same as a human eating a Big Mac? Is it true that apple seeds can kill a dog? Why is cat food bad for dogs? Dog evolution: New genomic insights into where and when domestic dogs evolved, how closely related are modern dogs, wolves and coyotes? Dogs in the city: … Read More

Starfish-killing robots and artificial plants – cyborgs or saviours? - Pointing At Science

Sep 09, 2015

  Two pieces of research news this week highlight how, in science, bad things can outwardly seem a good idea and good things can sometimes sound scary!  First the ‘good’ – a team at Queensland University of Technology have been developing an underwater robot that can kill starfish – doesn’t sound that good does it?  Well, this very clever invention is an autonomous submarine that can identify the pesky crown of thorns starfish against a background of coral and other sea creatures, and then administer a lethal injection of saline solution to kill them.  The reason for this is that the crown of thorns starfish is a voracious predator of coral polyps, and population numbers have exploded due to nutrient runoff from land and other factors, which is decimating corals worldwide.  Estimates are that up to 50% of coral senescence … Read More

Seabirds facing death by plastic - Pointing At Science

Sep 03, 2015

A synthesis of data spanning over 60 years has revealed an alarming increase in the number of seabirds that have ingested plastic. An Australian-led study published this week in PNAS (abstract only without a subscription) shows that whilst the number of seabirds that had eaten plastic was 5% in 1950, by 2010 this had risen to 80%, and is likely to approach 99% by 2050.  Ingested plastic prevents the birds from eating and digesting food and so sadly many face death by starvation in the long term. Seabirds live in coastal areas and since around 80% of marine plastic is discharged from land they are literally living in a global human trash can.  Even more disturbing for our part of the world is that the Southern Ocean – Tasman Sea interface was one of the worst hotspots. Read More

Amoeba that farm bacteria and more on Dear Science - Pointing At Science

Aug 27, 2015

Check out my Dear Science show on 95 bFM this week.  I discuss three new research papers that reveal what the distribution of large mammals on Earth would look like if humans had never existed, why amoeba ‘farm’ certain bacteria but not others, and a study that may have identified the molecular basis for why mammals have much bigger brains than birds an reptiles. Read More

What would the world look like without humans? - Unsorted

Aug 25, 2015

Despite the best efforts of American dentists and accountants to exterminate lions, giraffes and other large mammals in Africa, the continent still supports the greatest diversity of large mammals today.  The reason for this is not that Africa has a particularly favourable environment for mammalian diversity. Instead new research shows it is because humans have wiped out so many of them everywhere else. A group of Danish scientists from Aarhus University in Denmark have released maps of what the world’s distribution of mammals would look like if humans had never existed – and the findings may surprise you.  For example as you might expect northern Europe would still be home to wolves, bears and elk – but also to elephants and rhinoceroses too! They showed in a previous study that the mass extinction of large mammals during and after … Read More

Super mice, robot limbs and more on Dear Science - Pointing At Science

Aug 21, 2015

On my Dear Science show on 95 bFM radio this week, I discuss breaking science news stories including the creation of a super mouse in the laboratory, how the brain can control robotic limbs, and a report that New Zealand intertidal skinks use salty snot to osmoregulate! Despite being fiercely opposed to animal experimentation I found the super mouse study is very intriguing.  By modification of a single gene (phosphodiesterase-4B) laboratory mice showed dramatic increases in cognition and intelligence.  They also showed reduced fear and one of the ways the scientists assessed this was in the mouse response to cat urine – so I am pretty glad I just work on microbes! Links to journal article (abstract only unless you have a subscription) and popular science story on this research. Read More

This week on bFM’s Dear Science show - Pointing At Science

Aug 13, 2015

The ‘space lettuce’ story has been widely covered this week (see my blog ‘Rocket salad Anyone’ from 11 August), and lets face it few things are less appealing than a 2 day old lettuce – so this week listen to some other science news stories on bFM.  I discuss how new advances in understanding the immune system of bees may help fight colony collapse disorder, and why our assumptions about how species survived mass extinctions may need a re-think.

How to make Auckland a world-class city? - Pointing At Science

Aug 13, 2015

A great feature by Jamie Morton in the Herald started this week, looking at Auckland’s potential to be a truly world-class city.  My contribution focuses on the issue of air quality and human health, and in particular the need for an allergen monitoring system.  

Catch the Herald article here:

Watch the video that accompanies the feature here:

Rocket salad anyone? - Pointing At Science

Aug 12, 2015

I tweeted (@stevepointing) this story yesterday describing how astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) had tucked into their first ‘home grown’ salad in space.  It was also the feature of my interview with Duncan Garner on yesterday’s Radio Live Driveshow.  The obvious joy at having something other than food from a foil pouch was clearly visible among Scott Kelly and his fellow astronauts  - and one even quipped “it tasted like arugula” (arugula is known in NZ as rocket - pun fully intended!).  Interestingly many news reports on this story have generally omitted to mention that the Russians have actually been eating their own space-grown veggies for some time and in 2002 reported eating mustard, peas and radishes grown in space. There is a science story here too – both in terms of insight to more fundamental aspects of plant science and also about what growing space veggies means for future space exploration.

The ISS astronauts grew 44 red romaine lettuces in just 33 days, but because plants evolved on earth some adjustments were necessary to ensure they grew, and were not detrimental to the enclosed environment of the space station.  Step one involved creating little ‘pillows’ of growing compost, nutrients and water into which a seed was placed – this was necessary because in microgravity the soil in an open pot would literally just float away!  Despite being closer to the sun, the light regime in space is not ideal for plant growth, and so a panel of LED lights was used with red and blue to stimulate photosynthesis, and green to make the plants look appealing.  The phototropic cues facing the space lettuces were therefore not too different from that on earth. What about the gravity? The plants were grown in microgravity but despite well-known geotropism responses in plants, the reduced gravity on the space station was not enough to significantly affect the growth of the lettuces, and in fact they look remarkably like ‘home grown’ lettuce from my garden.  Half the crop will be returned to earth for further research and so it will be interesting to see what micro-scale changes may be detectable from this research.

Looking forward to future food production in space, this is a serious endeavour.  NASA is committed to a manned mission to Mars at some point in the future, and any long duration space mission would benefit from having fresh food.  There are considerations: It is unlikely that astronauts could become self-sufficient due to space and resource requirements for this space agriculture, and as shown yesterday care must be taken to thoroughly clean any produce because in microgravity human associated microbes and waste can form biofilms on literally any surface. However, as a valuable food supplement there are obvious benefits, not least because in space where exposure to radiation is greater than on earth, any dietary intake of green vegetables that are usually high in antioxidants, could have long term health benefits.  There is also a strong sense among space psychologists that tending a living garden could be very therapeutic to astronauts on long missions.

The next step is to grow flowers on the ISS.  This may seem at first glance like a trivial task, but establishing whether pollination can occur for flowering plants in space is the next step towards growing a wider variety of space food – perhaps one day including fruits!