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

Why it is perfectly safe to have a beer with your BBQ - Pointing At Science

Feb 08, 2015

Not content with catalyzing a change to the recipe for Coca Cola and Pepsi in 2012, an unfortunate misinterpretation of science has now caused the Heineken brewing company to announce this week that it too will follow suit and modify the recipe for it’s beers in the US market.


The culprit is the ‘caramel colour’ compound 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), which California law requires to be labeled as a carcinogen. Now normally I would react to this by thinking ‘great, another artificial chemical removed from the human food chain’ BUT there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye and it highlights once again how science has been misinterpreted and led to what is probably a needless reaction.


The compound 4-MEI is a naturally occurring one, it arises due to heating and browning of foods and may also be a fermentation product – so if you enjoy some barbecued food with your beer (or Coke or Pepsi) I suspect you are exposed to a lot more of this compound than if you simply have a few drinks.  Indeed the only study to link 4-MEI to carcinogenic activity was in mice and to replicate the dose in humans would require you to drink a wopping 1,000 cans of Coke a day!  The Heineken company are to replace 4-MEI with a roasted malt colouring, which although it sounds more benign will also contain a suite of compounds that arise from the heating and browning process, so I am not convinced that food safety is really addressed here – although any move to more natural ingredients is a good one in my view.


Too many studies identifying potential dangers in food and beverage products are done in mouse or rat model systems and the dose regime is often several orders of magnitude above what a human would ever reasonably be expected to consume. However, these can fuel sensationalist and inaccurate stories that nonetheless may strongly influence consumer choice. A science ethics issue arises here in that I believe such science is reckless. In my field of molecular ecology I cannot imagine a peer review process accepting such indirect evidence, yet it seems that when it comes to human health studies that too often sound experimental design and reasonable interpretation are overlooked if there is the hint of a ‘story’. Such studies are picked up by media outlets through trawling the science press, and so the blame unfortunately lies fair and square on the scientists for what they may often perceive as harmless ‘value added’ statements in their work, identifying potential broader relevance of their studies – but unfortunately this is also sometimes due to authors over-stretching the meaning of their data.  Indeed as a journal editor for the Nature Publishing Group this is often my biggest single gripe for weak submissions.


The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority have concluded that current levels of 4-MEI in beer and cola drinks are of no concern. Thus while both Coca Cola, Heineken and Pepsi have already confirmed their change in manufacturing process US-wide, it seems that this may be due to pressure arising from misinterpretation of a scientific study!  This is why despite the fact that neither company is changing it’s manufacturing process outside the US I believe we are quite safe whether we choose a beer or a cola with our good old Kiwi barbecue this summer!


Starting “Science Chat” in 2015 with stories ancient and modern - Pointing At Science

Jan 23, 2015

Here is a summary of my first 'Science Chat' feature of the year for TV3’s Firstline show, which resumed this week on TV3 after the summer break



The ancient: New insight to worlds oldest writing

The wealthy Roman resort town of Herculaneum was buried in 79AD by the massive eruption from Mt Vesuvius that also engulfed Pompeii.  Excavations some 260 years ago revealed a library with over 800 papyrus scrolls, and thought to represent the only surviving scrolls from ancient times.  Unfortunately these proved to be so badly charred by the 300oC ash cloud that several efforts to unroll and read them have ended in destruction of the fragile artefacts.  Excitingly science now appears to have come to the rescue, and for the first time the scrolls are starting to yield their secrets.


A phase contrast X-ray tomography approach was employed, that allowed researchers to measure the indentations in the papyrus form the original scribe’s writing (since the ink and papyrus were too badly charred to be distinguished from one another). So far 24 letters have been resolved, although the straight criss-cross woven texture of the papyrus meant that curved letter indentations have generally been more readily interpreted than straight letters. 


The analysis so far was enough for scholars to conclude one scroll describes the work of the Ancient Greek philosopher Philodemus, and advocated the pursuit of pleasure as the key to happiness – so maybe expect some racy revelations in the near future!


The work appears in the journal Nature Communications: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/150120/ncomms6895/full/ncomms6895.html



And the modern: Geologists agree on new geological age created by mankind

Significant changes in Earth’s history leave indelible signatures in the geological record, so for example the well-known ‘Jurassic’ was an era characterised by large dinosaurs which appear in the fossil record.  The newest geological era, the Anthropocene, was proposed by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen over 15 years ago.  This name was proposed for the modern age where mankind has indelibly altered the planetary environment, and candidates for the start of this era range form the dawn of civilisation, to the industrial revolution, and more recently the ‘great acceleration’ of the post war industrial world.  A key to credibility and usefulness for any geological age is that a ‘golden spike’ can be irrefutably used to identify that period in geological time.  A group of 26 influential geologists recently met at the University of Leicester (one of my almer mata) and surprisingly they not only achieved consensus on what that golden spike is, but also a precise date for it!  The marker in question is the change in earth chemistry caused by nuclear detonations, with the first one occurring in New Mexico on July 16th 1945.  Astonishingly between then and the test ban in 1988 detonations continued worldwide at an average rate of one every 9.6 days – which leaves a very unambiguous signal for future generations of geologists! 




Spaceward Bound Captain’s Log - Pointing At Science

Jan 21, 2015

Captain’s Log: Day 1 (Friday)

Blast Off !

After starting the day with a really great early morning media interview with the charismatic Aziz Al-Sa’Afin from TV3 in Auckland, the NASA, Australian and Kiwi participants headed down to Rotorua where we received a very warm welcome Whakatau by the elders of Te Takenga Marae, Te Arawa in Mourea (just outside Rotorua).  The location could not have been more beautiful, the Marae is nestled between Lake Rotorua and Lake Rotoiti, and we have established our lakeside ‘base camp’ at the Marae.  Almost immediately the drone and rover teams assembled their remote operated vehicles and this attracted a huge amount of attention from locals young and old alike, indeed large audiences have been a feature throughout all our activities here this week! The rover was designed and built by Steve Hobbs (Canberra) and features a multispectral camera that can remotely identify photosynthetic microbes.  The drone is piloted by Matt Reyes (NASA) and has a high-definition camera that we will use to illustrate how remote imagery is important to exploration of extreme environments.


A major activity for Friday was setting up the science bays, each an activity area themed to address one of our research goals this week.  The aim is to use astrobiology as a scientific thread to stimulate new thinking and ideas about science education, and a KPI of our expedition is to produce a suite of suggested astrobiology-focused activities that can be incorporated into and enrich NZ and other secondary school curricula. The themes are:

Planetary science– astronomy and the search for habitable planets in other solar systems.

Planetary protection– planning for safe handling of samples returned from other planets, and safe activity by humans on other planets.

Extreme life – the limits for life and the value of studying microbial ‘extremophiles’ as an analogue for early life on Earth and extra-terrestrial life.

Robotics and rockets– the technology that is required to meet astrobiology objectives, specifically for near-term goals with unmanned rovers.

Art and culture – the aesthetic and cultural significance of astrobiology, including the Maori creation story, which is a captivating legend that very closely mirrors the concepts of the scientific ‘big bang’ view on how the universe began.

Planning to live on other planets – the physiological, logistical, psychological and philosophical aspects relating to human colonisation of other worlds.


Captain’s Log: Day 2 (Saturday)

Early Earth in Rotorua

Saturday saw the start of our science field activities.  Over 50 participants visited the Waimangu geothermal valley, a relatively new geothermal feature comprising a rift valley with thermal vents, lakes and terraces created by a violent eruption in 1886 that also claimed many lives locally.  Here Kathy Campbell led a fascinating narrated walk through the valley, where standout features were the extensive thermophilic cyanobacterial mats and stromatolites growing at temperatures of approximately 50-70oC.  I really enjoyed seeing thermophilic microbial mats again, and even the smell of hydrogen sulphide gas (think rotten eggs) was a pleasant reminiscence, as I have in the past done a fair amount of research on the biology of hot springs in Tibet, Thailand and the Philippines.  This meant I was able to share my knowledge of these systems with the teachers and high school students in the group.


In the evening we had the first of our expert science lectures.  Starting us off was Kathy Campbell from the University of Auckland, who gave a talk about primitive microbial life in geothermal springs and how it can be preserved in sinter deposits as “biosignatures”.  It is widely thought that life on Earth originated in surface geothermal areas like Waimangu or in deep sea hydrothermal vents.  Multiple threads of evidence support this: The most ancient evolutionary lineages alive on Earth today are thermophiles – organisms that thrive at high temperatures.  Also geothermal activity creates aqueous chemistry that favours relatively simple metabolism (such as oxidation of inorganic compounds to obtain energy).  We also know that these environments were widespread on an early earth.  Kathy’s research to identify “biosignatures” of such life in sinter (geothermally precipitated silica) is therefore important to the quest to find our earliest ancestor!




Captain’s Log: Day 3 (Sunday)

Life on Mars and Mordor

Today one group departed early to hike the Tongariro Crossing, whilst I led a team to Sulphur Point in Rotorua to hold a Public Open Day.  We arrived at the ‘moonscape’ in the heart of Rotorua at 9:30am and began to unpack our rovers, drones and robots – and almost immediately began to attract a crowd.  In less than an hour we had several hundred members of the public join us to learn about astrobiology and why the unique and beautiful city of Rotoura was our choice for showcasing these space exploration vehicles.  My informal talks on astrobiology were popular with young and old alike, and the interactive displays of our Mars rover (Steve Hobbs), flying drone (Matt Reyes), bottle rockets (Ken Silburn, Sydney) and manipulator robots (Alf Eldridge, Wellington) were hugely popular and very evocative when seeing them drive around the ‘alien’ landscape.  We let visitors take a ‘hands on’ approach and many children were thrilled to be able to take control of our robots and try to ‘capture’ an alien stuffed toy using their ‘bots.  It was very pleasing to also receive keen interest from the Daily Post on this great outreach story.


I spent a very interesting afternoon exploring with participants how Maori and other cultures interpret the stories surrounding creation.  I feel very strongly that astrobiology is an area where science and faith can come together and jointly provide an enriched learning experience where science can meet faith, philosophy and culture without being confrontational.


This was be followed by a group viewing of the night sky with Julian Thompson, Ken Stilburn and Matt Reyes.  This was particularly exciting because the International Space Station passed over the Marae just after 9pm and we also identified several satellites passing overhead – which helped many people connect with our space theme for this expedition.  Unfortunately a group of participants also connected very personally with the microbiology theme of astrobiology, due to a particularly nasty outbreak of a bug that struck down several people including me.





Captain’s Log: Day 4 (Monday)

Sampling extreme life

Today is field-sampling day in Paraki thermal streams.  Some field participants also became thermophiles themselves, taking advantage of the comfortably warm waters in Kerosene Creek to soothe away the aches and pains of our previous days hiking.  As the resident microbiologist I prepared microscope slides and illustrate photosynthetic and photo-protective pigments, and give a very general guide to identifying major groups of thermophiles in the field.  We also had some fun with the children around the Marae, showing them what leaves and insects and other things around them look like when magnified! 


In the evening we welcomed Mark Gee, Astro-photographer of the Year, to the Marae where he gave a presentation with breathtaking pictures.  The clouds interfered rather with our night sky observations later, but some great insights form all of the astronomy crew helped make this fun. 


A particular highlight of our evenings this week has been the “Mobile Planetarium” – an amazing inflatable dome with a 3-D projection system, where Ron Fisher (Cosmodome) has given beautifully narrated animations of the southern night sky, and breathtaking videos of space exploration.



Captain’s Log: Day 5 (Tuesday)

Media Day

This morning we opened the airlock to reporters from several television, radio and print media representatives.  The Spaceward Bound team put on a number of displays and a lively three hours of reporting left us all feeling that we have really put astrobiology and Spaceward Bound firmly on the Aotearoa map. Some links below:





This afternoon I gave a science talk on the relevance of Antarctica’s icy deserts as an analogue for life on Mars (Steve Pointing, AUT).  This is an interesting contrast to Kathy’s talk on thermophiles and the origin of life in hot environments.  Here I will focus on how extant or recent life might have survived on Mars by colonising favourable subsurface environments beneath rocks, and give examples of my recent research collaboration with NASA on evaluating drill technology for recovering biosignatures.


Spaceward Bound goes on for a further day with touristic activities for our overseas guests, but unfortunately tonight I have to return to my ‘day job’ in Auckland.  A huge thank you to all my fellow participants for making this a most enjoyable week and especially to Haritina Mogosanu whose vision and determination made sure this whole event came together so well.  I am sure this Spaceward Bound event will have lasting impact on the science team, teachers, students and our wonderful hosts at the Marae.  I have really enjoyed my outreach and media role for this event, and I think that we have laid some solid foundations to build further interest in astrobiology in New Zealand during the years ahead, and ultimately for development of curriculum material to enrich the NCEA curriculum in New Zealand.



Kirk out (beep).

Captain’s Log: Day 1 (Friday) - Pointing At Science

Jan 18, 2015

After starting the day with a really great early morning media interview by the charismatic Aziz Al-Sa’Afin from TV3 in Auckland, the NASA, Australian and Kiwi participants headed down to Rotorua where we received a very warm welcome Whakatau by the elders of Te Takenga Marae, Te Arawa in Mourea (just outside Rotorua).  The location could not have been more beautiful, the Marae is nestled between Lake Rotorua and Lake Rotoiti, and we have established our lakeside ‘base camp’ at the Marae.  Almost immediately the drone and rover teams assembled their remote operated vehicles and this attracted a huge amount of attention from locals young and old alike, indeed large audiences have been a feature throughout all our activities here this week! The rover was designed and built by Steve Hobbs (Canberra) and features a multispectral camera that can remotely identify photosynthetic microbes.  The drone is piloted by Matt Reyes (NASA) and has a high-definition camera that we will use to illustrate how remote imagery is important to exploration of extreme environments.


A major activity for Friday was setting up the science bays, each an activity area themed to address one of our research goals this week.  The aim is to use astrobiology as a scientific thread to stimulate new thinking and ideas about science education, and a KPI of our expedition is to produce a suite of suggested astrobiology-focused activities that can be incorporated into and enrich NZ and other secondary school curricula. The themes are:

Planetary science– astronomy and the search for habitable planets in other solar systems.

Planetary protection– planning for safe handling of samples returned from other planets, and safe activity by humans on other planets.

Extreme life – the limits for life and the value of studying microbial ‘extremophiles’ as an analogue for early life on Earth and extra-terrestrial life.

Robotics and rockets– the technology that is required to meet astrobiology objectives, specifically for near-term goals with unmanned rovers.

Art and culture – the aesthetic and cultural significance of astrobiology, including the Maori creation story, which is a captivating legend that very closely mirrors the concepts of the scientific ‘big bang’ view on how the universe began.


Planning to live on other planets – the physiological, logistical, psychological and philosophical aspects relating to human colonisation of other worlds.



Testing the NASA drone - Pointing At Science

Jan 16, 2015

Matt Reyes from NASA shows some budding young astrobiologists our GPS-linked drone at the Marae. It's ideal for flying over Rotorua's hot pools, and devices related to this are key to future planetary exploration and the search for traces of life on ot...

Spaceward Bound “T minus 1 day” - Pointing At Science

Jan 15, 2015

The excitement is mounting as participants begin to arrive in New Zealand for the inaugural New Zealand Spaceward Bound expedition.  My scientific collaborator and friend, NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay says: "New Zealand is a great place fo...

Science Knight speaks out on politicians “dishonesty” - Pointing At Science

Jan 15, 2015

I was lucky enough to spend a little time with Sir Paul Nurse at Scott Base in Antarctica a few years ago, and it was a genuine pleasure.  The charismatic president of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate has now climbed even higher in my estimation for his latest public commentary on science and politics.  He branded UK politicians “cowardly” for ignoring scientific evidence that they deemed unpopular with the public: "They have the evidence in front of them but they sometimes are cowardly about using their intelligence and using our evidence to come to a leadership decision."


This “indicates a total lack of leadership on the politicians part” he added.  I think this sentiment is indeed Knightly and highlights the sad truth that politics in many ways has evolved into a twisted and dysfunctional endeavour where compromise rather than bold and chivalrous acts are the order of the day – you can see where I am going with this, perhaps we should ban knighthoods for politicians unless they can clearly show these traits!


I should, however, also temper my praise for Sir Paul and his comments.  This is because they were related to specific examples of drug use and immigration policy in Britain – which does not have the best track record in either area.  I grew up in a working class environment in Britain where drugs were rife, and I have seen the harm they cause first hand – so no amount of science will convince me that making hard drugs legal is the right choice for society.  I am also an immigrant (twice!) and have some first hand appreciation of what a complex problem this is for modern society, with many positive but also potential negative outcomes – again science does not have all the answers here (it is often what is not openly discussed that is the problem).  I think Sir Paul’s comments were particularly appropriate to climate and emission policy, and the inertia that still exists in this area is shocking.  There are other areas too that were not specifically highlighted in his speech but probably make good examples of where politicians should listen to scientists more: Antibiotic use, road safety, family planning, and one of my greatest concerns here in NZ – the quality of indoor environments for state home dwellers.



Spaceward Bound “T minus 2 days” - Pointing At Science

Jan 14, 2015

Astrobiology – the study of life in its broadest possible sense - is about to become BIG in New Zealand, with the first ever NASA Spaceward Bound outreach expedition commencing this Friday in Taupo (http://astrobiology.kiwi/spaceward-bound-new-zealand/).  This will bring together NASA scientists and overseas educators with kiwi scientists, teachers and students. 


Astrobiology is an ideal medium for learning in science and also across science-humanities boundaries because it is truly interdisciplinary.  Astronomers, biologists, engineers and robotics experts all need to interact, and the philosophical and ethical issues require careful integration with science.


Dr Kim Warren-Rhodes at NASA Ames Research Center in California comments:


"It is quite fitting that New Zealand embarks on its first Spaceward Bound program given the recent new evidence for past water and possible life on Mars and other planets. Veteran Spaceward Bound scientist Prof. Steve Pointing promises to kindle the excitement of astrobiological research for a new generation of scientists and explorers as they help search for clues to the limits of life on the Earth and beyond."


If you are not familiar with the field of astrobiology, then a good starting point is to view my 2014 Professorial Address on the subject: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_UjsrKDgC8).