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

car crashes, green products, transformers and hip hop - Pointing At Science

May 27, 2015

In my ‘Dear Science’ radio show on 95.0 bFM today, I discuss new science and technology findings that tell us why you are more likely to die if you hit an SUV rather than a car, why ‘green’ household products really may not be that good for you, how the Transformers movie is affecting management style, and how big data has revealed Hip Hop as the biggest musical revolution of the last 50 years.


Listen to the podcast at:




The missing link between simple and complex cells? - Pointing At Science

May 13, 2015

An intriguing new paper appeared in Nature this week, entitled ‘Complex archaea that bridge the gap between prokaryotes and eukaryotes’ (abstract and author details at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature14447.html


So what’s all the fuss about? – surely the widely held view that simple prokaryotic cells (the domains Archaea and Bacteria, which are what most people would know as simple unicellular ‘microbes’) gave rise to the more complex eukaryotic cells (the domain Eukarya which includes everything else from protists to plants and animals) is well established and needs no further insight?  Well not quite…


There has been significant controversy over whether the archaea evolved ‘gigantism’ as cells and then subsumed bacteria that became mitochondria and chloroplasts – to create eukaryal cells, or whether they evolved as separate lineages form a more distant ancestor (see Nature Reviews Microbiology 8, 743-752,  http://www.nature.com/nrmicro/journal/v8/n10/full/nrmicro2426.html).


Image credit: NPG



The new study offers evidence that archaea indeed do represent an ancestral state, with a monophyletic lineage between the newly discovered archaeal phylum Lokiarchaeota and euakrya.  The phylogenomic evidence is quite compelling, with GTPases (involved in phagocytosis, a eukaryal trait) and actins (implicated in complex cell structure) suggesting the new phylum represents a ‘starter kit’ towards greater cellular complexity and eventual eukaryal cells.  Coupled with the ribosomal genes showing the greatest affiliation to eukaryal ribosomal genes of any archaea studied to date – this makes a fairly convincing story.  Of course nobody is suggesting that the Lokiarchaeota, discovered near a deep sea hydrothermal vent off the Norwegian coast, are an extant missing link. Rather the evolutionary relationships suggest that the ancestral state did exist and can reasonably be expected to represent a transitional stage towards eukaryal cells.

NASA one step closer to finding aliens - Pointing At Science

Apr 16, 2015

I have been fortunate enough to work closely with NASA’s Ames Research Center for over ten years.  They are the world’s leading astrobiology research institution, and have been responsible for most of the major advances in this field.  This week has been massive for NASA for two reasons: The discovery of conditions for liquid water on Mars and a very bold statement from their chief scientist Ellen Storfan that NASA would demonstrate evidence life on another planet by 2025.


I explain more detail about both items this week on the Paul Henry Show and also on my ‘Dear Science’ radio broadcast on BFM.


What has prompted NASA to make this bold prediction?

  • NASA now has a thorough understanding of what makes a planet ‘habitable’, so they know where to look – a key advantage in the vastness of space!
  • Recent discoveries have revealed the essential ‘ingredients’ for life (water and organic chemicals) are far more widespread in the universe than previously thought.



Where should we be looking for aliens?

  • NASA is exploring the surface of our closest planetary neighbour Mars, and has plans to also investigate one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa.  Mars was chosen because in the not-too distant past the planet was much warmer and wetter, with a climate similar to Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys today. Europa supports a vast liquid water ocean beneath its icy surface, and so may offer habitats similar to those at deep-sea hydrothermal vents here on Earth.
  • Further afield, the Kepler space telescope has identified thousands of earth-like planets in distant solar systems that occupy the ‘habitable zone’, an orbit just the right distance from a star to allow liquid water to exist.



What would alien life be like?

  • Any aliens on Mars or Europa would likely be microorganisms.  The extreme environmental stress they would face, and the scarcity of organic ‘food’ means that they would also likely be autotrophic – obtaining their energy from sunlight or inorganic compounds, and their carbon from fixing carbon dioxide (as plants do here on Earth). We know from looking at similar environments on Earth that they would likely be single celled bacteria or archaea.
  • If life has evolved on planets in another solar system, it would be adapted to the conditions there – different gravity, radiation, oxygen availability and other factors mean that their phenotype could be unlike anything we have encountered.  Having said this, the parsimony that drives evolution of biochemical processes means that basic biomolecules and metabolism may share many similarities with Earth-bound life.



How do we detect these aliens?

  • Astrobiologists require a ‘smoking gun’ of irrefutable evidence, previous over-confident claims of ‘proof’ for alien life have not helped credibility in this field - recall US President Bill Clinton in 1996 announcing to the world that evidence for life in a Martian meteorite had been found, but now widely believed to be an abiotic artefact.
  • Future Mars landers need to search for chemical signatures that are exclusively biogenic - complex organic molecules like DNA, chlorophyll or proteins that can only be synthesised by living systems.
  • The Kepler space telescope is finding a staggering number of potentially Earth-like planets in other solar systems.  This is because compared to earlier telescopes that largely could resolve only large gas giant planets, Kepler can identify relatively small planets of similar mass to Earth.  At this stage evidence for life on these would be indirect, for example due to gas disequilibrium in their atmosphere.



Is there any chance that we might encounter intelligent alien life?

  • This really depends on your viewpoint, if you are take an anthropocentric view you may see humanity as a unique ‘occurrence’ in the universe, but conversely if you favour the mediocrity view then you may feel life is something that can arise frequently in our vast universe.
  • Current efforts to make humanity known to aliens are fairly trivial. The SETI programme monitors radio waves but they travel relatively slowly, and so an alien broadcast might reach us long after their civilisation had crumbled. Similarly our own radio emissions have travelled only a small distance into space (about 50 light years) and so we are not making ourselves very easy to find.  The Voyager spacecraft launched in the 1970’s is the first man-made item to leave our solar system, but that is a single and very small sign that we are here!



What does all this mean for faith and religion?

  • Scientists are frequently atheists, and many people of faith reject scientific notions of the evolution of life. I find it a little amusing that many scientists reject religion and the notion of an omniscient entity (God) despite having absolute ‘faith’ that before the Big Bang there was an indefinable 'nothing'. Finding proof of life on other planets might help to bring scientists and people of faith together in seeking to redefine our place in the universe. 
  • Interestingly Pope Francis stated in 2014 that he would be willing to baptise a Martian, it might be a win-win for faith and science if we do find alien life!



Science is set to drone on and on! - Pointing At Science

Apr 10, 2015

It is looking increasingly like New Zealand will be the first country to approve ‘beyond line of sight’ operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones or remote piloted aerial systems (RPAS).  This follows a submission by Callaghan Innovation to the government, describing economic benefits that will arise from using UAV to make gains in the primary industries and conservation sector (https://www.callaghaninnovation.govt.nz/sites/all/files/UAV-benefits-study.pdf).


What does this mean for science? I discussed this in my weekly radio show ‘Dear Science’ this week: http://www.95bfm.com/assets/sm/220679/3/dearScience.mp3


Approval to operate beyond line of sight will mean that UAV can finally be used for what they were designed for – spatial mapping of large areas more cheaply and with higher resolution than satellites are currently able to achieve.  Payloads will allow remote mapping of water, plants, livestock, marine life and disturbance, as well as direct airborne measurements of atmospheric phenomena.


The use of UAV for small-scale science projects has been gathering momentum recently, and two universities are leading the way in this. AUT University has a long record in development and application of UAVs, and works with a well-known New Zealand drone manufacturer called SkyCam.  They have developed new drones for use in Antarctic conservation and marine conservation, as well as being involved in development of novel software called Pix4-UAV to handle the massive data sets generated. The University of Canterbury also has a strong interest in UAV, and is currently developing its own aircraft for meteorological and climatological research. You can follow the AUT UAV blog here: http://uavataut.blogspot.co.nz/


One of the major issues will be the integration of UAV operation with piloted aircraft traffic.  The nomination of Dr Barbara Bollard-Breen (AUT) and Dr Kelvin Barnsdale (UC) for appointment to UAV-NZ, a division of Aviation New Zealand, means we will have scientists involved in discussion with the civil aviation industry on how best to achieve this under the proposed 'airshare' system.



Approval for beyond line of sight UAV flights should be the catalyst for a boom in research, and importantly more jobs for our graduates –conducting research with UAV and also in the field of GIS, which is used to interpret the massive data sets.


The Polar Fox, a UAV designed jointly by AUT and SkyCam for use in Antarctica:

Do we owe more of our identity to money than our genes? - Pointing At Science

Mar 23, 2015

An intriguing new piece of research by US and European researchers describes how human evolution may be disconnected from our traditional view of Darwinian natural selection.


Life on Earth is subject to evolution due to mutation and natural selection. The latter process describes how individuals with more favourable adaptation to their environment will contribute more to the subsequent generation’s gene pool than those with less favourable traits, hence it is often referred to as “survival of the fittest”.  This ‘fitness’ is manifest in nature where elaborate rituals to demonstrate strength and prowess are commonplace.  In humans too, we have traditionally viewed our evolution as following a similar path – where we adapted to become bipedal and develop complex societies, essentially driven by ‘fitter’ individuals enjoying greater reproductive success. 


The new study, however, suggests that rather than human evolution being driven by natural selection, it has long been the case that humans themselves shape evolution.  A study of human male genetics via the Y chromosome (most studies to date have focused on female inheritance via mitochondrial genes) revealed an acute bottleneck in male genetic diversity some 4,000 – 8,000 years ago.  This was at a time when female genetic diversity was increasing, and so what was the cause?  The research suggests that the timing is crucial – since this period corresponds to the transition from Neolithic hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies, a consequence of which was the focus of wealth and power to relatively few individuals and an increase in the reproductive success of these few ‘socially fit’ males. 


Given that wealth accumulation is such a strong societal driver today, it is plausible that this is still a strong driver of human evolution – time will tell!



The original research article appears in the journal Genome Research: http://genome.cshlp.org/content/early/2015/03/13/gr.186684.114
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Australian desert dust comes to New Zealand - Pointing At Science

Mar 16, 2015

I have just returned from a trip to Kanazawa University, located on the central west coast of Japan.  Aside from enjoying the fabulous Japanese hospitality from my colleagues there, we got to do some awesome science on bio-aerosols.  This involved adapting a helicopter to accommodate our air filtration and analytical devices, designed to measure particulates, chemistry and biology of aerosolised desert dust (known locally as kosa). The dust arrives via the air stream that flows from the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts over China, Korea and the Sea of Japan before landing in Kanazawa and the surrounding area. We collected samples from an altitude of 1500ft, and it was immediately obvious that there were significant amounts of suspended dust.  This contributes to social, economic and human health problems, as well as acting as a vector for long-range transport of propagules.


Our experiments will be replicated in New Zealand during the coming months, where we will characterise the dust that arrives in our fair land from Australian deserts.  This is something that has been happening in New Zealand for a long time, and indeed was reported in the Journal Nature as early as 1903.  Worryingly the severity and frequency of dust storms worldwide is increasing as climate changes, and so we can expect to gradually acquire more of Australia in this way.  At the height of the last major dust event in 2009, some 75,000 tonnes of dust per hour were being dumped into the Tasman, the equivalent of around 50,000 Holden Colorado utes falling from the sky every hour! 



Our dust problem is not all imported either.  Vehicle emissions and fuel burning alone release the equivalent of 200 bags of cement to Auckland’s air every day, and despite being a great city the relatively high rate of asthma (1 in 4 Auckland children are sufferers) suggests we need to be more mindful of what is in our air. 


An Australian dust plume crossing the Tasman on its way to Aotearoa (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

Did gerbils bring the Black Death to Medieval Europe? - Pointing At Science

Feb 25, 2015

An exciting paper published in PNAS this week (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/02/20/1412887112) suggests that the history books may need to be re-written when it comes to the cause of the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death in Medieval Europe. 


The Black Death is caused by the gram negative bacterium Yersinia pestis. This microbe was discovered by Alexandre Yersin of the Pasteur Institute, after an 1894 outbreak of plague in my former home – Hong Kong.  The disease was known long before then but is widely believed to have its origins in Asia.  Conventional thinking is that it spread to Europe via rat vectors, and then European rat population acted as a zoonotic reservoir for the disease that allowed it to persist in Europe for over 400 years.


New evidence now suggests that the rat has been wrongly accused, and actually it is the Asian gerbil that may have been the culprit in causing the plague pandemics, including the 1347-1353 pandemic that wiped out more than one third of Europe’s population.



A study led by Christian Stenseth (who incidentally was one of my co-presenters at World Science Week here in Auckland last year: http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/events/world-science-week-new-zealand/), used historic climate data to infer that rat populations were unlikely to have expanded during the times of plague, but rather the wet spring and warm summer trend would have been conducive to explosions in Asian gerbil population numbers.  The fleas that carry Yersinia pestis are equally ‘at home’ on a gerbil as a rat, and so the study concludes that it was climate-driven gerbil population booms and subsequent transport along Silk Road trade routes from China to Europe that caused the plague pandemics in Europe. 

You should love the love rats - Pointing At Science

Feb 14, 2015

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone – If, like me, you are an old romantic at heart then you will be looking forward to the soppy card and perhaps a little gift today.  Bear in mind, however, that all those feelings of love we experience are down to SCIENCE!


As people fall in love they experience three stages: Lust, Attraction, and then Attachment.  Each of these is influenced by a specific set of hormones.  The feeling of lust needs no explanation but is controlled by levels of testosterone and oestrogen in both women and men.  The attraction stage is when you feel ‘love struck’ and the object of your affections dominates your thoughts.  This is thought to be controlled by three neurotransmitters – adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine.  When your heart races at the sight of your new love – that’s the adrenaline working! Dopamine is a ‘pleasure’ chemical, and also plays a role in that ‘can’t eat, can’t sleep’ feeling when you are in love.  Serotonin is an important love chemical, and may be responsible for causing pre-occupation with your new love.  Finally comes attachment, that feeling of love that comes with shared experience and time.  Two hormones thought to influence this are oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is widely known as the ‘orgasm hormone’ as it is released at sexual climax, but it is also thought to promote that ‘cuddling’ urge and promotes mother-infant bonding.  Vasopressin is released after orgasm and is also linked to attachment bonding.


How do we know this? – well mostly due to study of the amorous activities of rodents – which kind of gives a new meaning to the term “love rat” in my view!  Rodents that have blocked oxytocin pathways reject their young, whereas giving oxytocin to motherless rats can stimulate them to nurture the young of others.  Similarly prairie voles (which like humans have sex for fun as well as procreation) stop their promiscuous activity if vasopressin levels are suppressed with drugs.  Rather worryingly, there are a few anecdotal stories of this being adapted to ‘control’ love in humans.  The NZ Herald reported this week that one orthodox Jewish community administered anti-depressants to young people to lower their libido (through the neurotransmitter manipulation that these drugs cause).  A more speculative angle was whether feelings of love could be ‘cured’ by using drugs to manipulate the body’s neurotransmitter and hormone levels (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11400698).  This was suggested as one possible treatment for people in abusive relationships – but this sounds like a very drastic and rather Orwellian ‘cure’ to me.


So to everyone out there who is in love today – enjoy the feeling, but do spare a thought for your hard working hormones and also the countless rats that were sacrificed in order to bring these findings to your attention.  As a staunch anti-vivisectionist (I am proud to have never killed an animal for my research or teaching during almost 30 years in science) I am going to be sending my love to those gallant rodents as well as my whānau today!

Image credit: Hannah Thayn