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

Spaceward Bound “T minus 3 days” - Pointing At Science

Jan 13, 2015

Our NASA and other overseas participants have started their launch sequence for arrival on Planet NZ this Friday, and the team in NZ is busy making plans to welcome our fellow “Taupo-nauts”.  A very well deserved acknowledgement goes here to event leader Haritina Mogosanu as she works tirelessly and as far as I can tell without sleep (vampire?) on the finishing touches.  My biggest issue has been getting decent off-road tyres fitted to the 4x4 as the current tyres could reasonably be mistaken by some for racing slicks at the moment (a little wear and tear issue there!).


A few nice little astrobiology stories have made the news this week, which will hopefully help to pique public interest in our expedition.  Headlining is the ongoing debate about whether methane emissions from Mars’ subsurface might be biological in origin.  Check out the Astrobiology Magazine website for more:  http://www.astrobio.net/


If you are a budding astrobiologist, then consider attending the Astrobiology Science Conference in Chicago this June.  The theme is “habitability, habitable worlds, and life” http://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/abscicon2015/


Spaceward Bound NZ website: http://spacewardbound.astrobiology.kiwi/



Spaceward Bound “T minus 4 days” - Pointing At Science

Jan 12, 2015

Spaceward Bound is coming to New Zealand for the first time – THIS WEEK!


I am really excited to be part of this event to be held in the Taupo region from 16-21st January 2015. 


A team of NASA astrobiologists will join a New Zealand science team comprising Haritina Mogosanu, Kathy Campbell and myself – all of us being passionate about the field of astrobiology.  This is the study of life in it’s broadest possible sense, from the origins of life on Earth, to consideration of whether life could be sustained elsewhere in the universe, and onwards to the future for life as the universe itself evolves.


We will take a group of teachers and students to explore extreme environments and conduct scientific experiments that might one day provide insight to the search for life on other planets.  Our goal is to unite school teachers and university research scientists in field activities, in the hope that ultimately this will bring the excitement of space exploration to New Zealand students.


I will be blogging daily on our activities, so please do become an “armchair astrobiologist” and follow my posts as we travel "offworld" to Taupo!



The Spaceward Bound website is at: http://spacewardbound.astrobiology.kiwi/



Bacterial ‘gardening’ to solve antibiotic resistance? - Pointing At Science

Jan 08, 2015

Reckless over-use of antibiotics in livestock and humans is creating a healthcare time bomb where some super-bacteria are resistant to conventional antibiotic treatments.  The magnitude of this problem has been recognised by the several governments (see my earlier blog on this: http://pointingatscience.blogspot.co.nz/2014/06/longitude-prize-to-focus-on-antibiotic.html).  This problem is also exacerbated by the fact that few truly novel antibiotics have been introduced in recent decades, largely due to pharma-business focusing their R&D on more profitable drugs such as anti-depressants. 


However a new study published this week in Nature by a team from Northeastern University (Boston, USA), suggests that the by changing the way we go about discovering new candidate antibiotics new solutions might be on the horizon. Their approach was simple but elegant: Antibiotics are produced when bacteria have to ‘compete’ with each other for resources, and the most contested battleground in this regard is soil.  Unfortunately the majority of soil bacteria are unculturable, that is we just don’t know how to grow them in a laboratory in order to evaluate them for antibiotic production.  The researchers in Boston solved this problem by extracting bacterial cells from soil and then introducing them to an iChip, a device that allows cells to be suspended in individual chambers.  The iChip was then buried in soil and cells allowed to grow in situ while exposed to their native microenvironment.  Some astonishing novel metabolism was characterised in these previously unculturable bacteria, and among these a novel antibiotic named teixobactin. Their key discovery was that teixobactin works by inhibiting lipid synthesis in the cell walls of certain pathogenic bacteria in a novel way and with no detectable resistance pathways.  This hints that powerful new weapons in the fight against infection may be on the horizon, and that 'bioprospecting' which has fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years, may be about to see a renaissance.  As an ecologist I think there is also huge potential for the iChip technique to help improve our understanding of how microbial interactions take place in natural environments such as soil.




Pussyfooting around land mines may help leopard conservation - Pointing At Science

Jan 02, 2015

An intriguing conservation story has emerged in recent weeks from the mountainous region of Kurdistan on the Iran/Iraq border.  This area was disputed during the Iran/Iraq War of the 1980’s and was heavily populated with land mines.  These are an evil and indiscriminate weapon with a legacy that affects civilian populations long after any conflict has ceased.  In Kurdistan however, at least one piece of “good” news has arisen:  The local Persian Leopard is IUCN Red Listed as an endangered species, and despite the virtual absence of any practical conservation efforts in the region their numbers have rebounded to over 1,000 animals in recent years.  The reason for this is that these elegant cats tread very lightly and seldom place all their weight on one paw, and thus they avoid triggering the thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in their habitat (although two cats have been recorded as dying after setting off tripwire mines).  The human poachers on the other hand are acutely aware of the mines and avoid the area.  Conservationists therefore find themselves in the strange position of planning to oppose plans to clear the Kurdistan border area of mines.  This brings up a dilemma worthy of any (nature friendly) psychologist’s exercise – do you save the endangered leopard and accept the possibility of human casualties, or clear the mines and open the area to poachers once more?


The unintended beneficial consequences of war on natural populations is nothing new, there are reports of wildlife thriving in demilitarised zones around the world such as the North Korea/South Korea border.  The key here is keeping humans away, so other disasters such as the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown have also resulted in recovery of wildlife populations in that sad corner of Ukraine.


Read the National Geographic report on the Persian Leopard at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/12/141219-persian-leopard-iran-iraq-land-mine/


The majestic Persian Leopard (Image credit: Tamar Assaf)




Science highlights for 2014 - Pointing At Science

Dec 17, 2014

When asked to present a review on the year's biggest science stories for TV3's Firstline show, my colleague heather Hendrickson and I opted to go for examples at opposite ends of the spectrum - from outer space to inner space.  As an astrobiologis...

Astrobiology takes centre stage - Pointing At Science

Dec 12, 2014

Astrobiologists are all a flutter today as the Rosetta team announced their first detailed scientific analysis of the comet Philae (http://sci.esa.int/rosetta/).  Their analysis of water isotopes showed that the composition varied significantly from those found in water on our planet today – and this debunks a popular theory in astrobiology that comets were the source of water on a prebiotic earth.  Attention now turns to asteroids (these are rocky bodies as opposed to comets that are made largely of ice) as the likely source of earth’s water.  Whilst most asteroids in our solar system today have little or no water, this is because it has sublimated away over millennia, and it is widely believed they once comprised a significant water reservoir in our solar system.  Importantly this was also at the time earth was experiencing a high frequency of impacts and so this explanation is gaining traction.  For me this is also very exciting because the estimated timing of the largest part of this water deposition on earth (from around 3.8Ga) is very close to the estimated origin of life on earth (somewhere between 3.8-3.5Ga) – and so it suggests that life either evolved very soon after favourable conditions emerged or that perhaps some of the building blocks of life came ‘pre-assembled’ along with this water from space.  Simple organic compounds are widespread in space, but evidence for more complex organic compounds or even viable cells is lacking. This notion relates to the theory of ‘panspermia’ that postulates life in the universe has made inter-planetary leaps, although it is not supported by empirical evidence.


Astrobiology is also gaining momentum and popularity in New Zealand.  It addresses what are arguably the biggest questions in science – where do we come from? Are we alone? Where are we going? (http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/).  The multidisciplinary nature of astrobiology lends itself well to integrative science learning – and this is the rationale behind the forthcoming NASA Spaceward Bound expedition to be held in Taupo next month (http://astrobiology.kiwi/spaceward-bound-new-zealand/).  This event will bring together NASA scientists, university researchers and schoolteachers for a unique learning experience.  It is the first time that New Zealand has hosted a Spaceward Bound event, which are hugely popular around the world – I have been involved with previous Spaceward Bound expeditions and they are a great way to connect tertiary and secondary educators, and explore novel platforms for science learning.  Our kiwi Spaceward Bound is being organised by Haritina Mogosanu, who is well known in Aotearoa for her passion in astronomy – and I am really looking forward to being part of her vision when we head to Taupo to show how life in hot pools and other extreme habitats can be used to illustrate how life began on earth, and also test some cool NASA gadgets used in exploring our closest neighbour – Mars.





A billionaire with a moral compass and a scientist without one – what’s going on? - Pointing At Science

Dec 10, 2014

So the price of a Nobel medal is US$4.1m. That is what Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov paid this week for James Watson’s medal, the first to be sold by a living recipient.  After his purchase Mr Usmanov promptly announced that he would be returning the medal to Watson, and with an expectation that Watson would now donate the proceeds to his almer maters – Cambridge, Chicago and Indiana.  At almost US$1.4m each that should be a welcome injection of funds that hopefully will get spent on scientific research, as Usmanov has stated was his wish – although Watson had also earlier hinted that he may buy a David Hockney painting with the proceeds, and also apparently stated that he would donate the proceeds to the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory - which was a laudable gesture if true since he was dismissed as Chancellor there in 2007 for alleged racist comments.


This investment in science by Usmanov is a mere drop in the ocean to him since he is Russia’s richest man and also majority shareholder of Arsenal football club – where ironically a first team player can earn the Nobel medal’s value for playing just a handful of soccer games each year.  However, this gesture deserves major appreciation in my view, philanthropic donations are noble and fund a significant portion of the good science being undertaken worldwide today.  Even generosity is not without controversy however – the Gates foundation has been criticised for funding AIDS research preferentially over other more catastrophic human pandemics such as malaria, and interestingly a race-related trend even echoes into billionaire philanthropy – where the nationality of billionaire members in the Giving Pledge (a group who pledge the majority of their wealth to charity, www.givingpledge.org) does not match the number of billionaires by country (Forbes Rich List, www.forbes.com).



I suppose the “take home” message from my rambling above is this: Science that matters is woefully under-funded, especially compared to soccer.  Part of this is due to myopic leadership by governments worldwide (but also sadly due to some academics wasting scarce funds by engaging in poorly focused research with low impact outcomes).  However as a societal statement this should not surprise us: The ruins of one of our greatest civilisations, the Roman Empire, feature a prominent coliseum where (albeit rather bloody) sport was the order of the day but the great Roman library at Ephesus pails in comparison!

The science of Christmas - Pointing At Science

Nov 28, 2014

I absolutely LOVE Christmas, and being a scientist I have always been keen to understand just how Father Christmas (or Santa Claus, Pere Noel, St Nicolas as he is variously known elsewhere) achieves the incredible feat of making children happy all over...

Interstellar – real science in the movie? - Pointing At Science

Nov 12, 2014


The latest Christopher Nolan extravaganza “Interstellar” hit our screens this week – a science fiction epic that begins with the premise that mankind has messed up earth to the extent we need to find a new planet to live on or face extinction. The trailer opens with a world ravaged by massive dust storms that are symptomatic of failing agriculture and ecosystems, and then moves to space and the search for another earth-like habitable planet.  Aside from the obvious “action in space” appeal (I grew up with Star Wars!), this movie resonates strongly with me because it touches on two of my greatest passions in science – desertification and astrobiology! 



Desertification is the process where prolonged moisture deficit leads to degradation of land into a desert.  A result is that the natural protective surface layer of biological soil crust and plants are lost, exposing soil to become aerosolised as dust.  Cultivation of these drylands is a major problem, over 5bn hectares are used for farming and more than 70% of this is undergoing degradation – this is an issue for many subsistence farmers in developing nations, but also a major threat to developed economies: The south-western USA is in a prolonged state of drought, and there are increasing worries of a return to the dust bowl era of the 1930’s. The problem is dust – dry soils that are no longer held together by soil crusts and plants become mobilised as airborne dust that is dispersed across intercontinental scales, and the effects are both diverse and far-reaching.  They range from changes to regional hydrology, to impacts on marine productivity and adverse human health and societal costs.  Worryingly, several studies released during 2014 have predicted that both the severity and frequency of dust events is likely to increase under future climate scenarios. The image below is form a real dust storm in China, and shows just how “real” the scenario in the movie could become.




The second major premise of the movie is that humans could find another planet to live on.  This relies on the concept in astrobiology known as the Habitable Zone, where planets orbiting at a certain distance form their star and having the right mass to retain an atmosphere, could support liquid water and therefore potentially allow life to evolve (to see more on this view my online lecture at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pmhsu0iu0c0).  The good news is that NASA’s Kepler telescope has discovered literally thousands of planets in this habitable zone of other stars, and in April 2014 they identified most earth-like planet to date (the imaginatively named Kepler 186f).  This planet has a mass 110% that of earth, and an orbital period of 130 days around its star in the Cygnus constellation.  The star is an orange dwarf and so is nowhere near as bright as our own star, but in terms of sunlight it has been calculated that noon on Kepler 186f would be equivalent to the hour before sunset on earth – and this would be sufficient for photoautotrophic life to flourish!  Could humans possibly go and live there one day, as in the movie?  The answer is a resounding NO at the moment simply because we lack the technology to get there, or have sufficient knowledge to know how to sustain human life on another planet – but here science fiction may end up meeting science fact: Since the movie uses a wormhole to distort space-time perhaps this is our best bet for reaching these potential ‘new’ earths?


A final word though, the link between science fiction and science fact is in my view a strong one, the two inform each other – one providing the ‘what if’ and the other the ‘can do’, and that is why it is exciting!  My only concern is that the trend in popular fiction towards presenting our future as being ‘off world’ should not act a s a disincentive to good environmental stewardship of the only planet we actually know we can currently inhabit – Earth.



See the news feature on TV3 for this story at: 
http://www.3news.co.nz/entertainment/interstellar-has-science-on-its-side-2014111211


Rosetta makes history - Pointing At Science

Nov 12, 2014

Momentous history was achieved in space today - Rosetta's probe Philae successfully touched down on the surface of a comet after a chase of more than 6 billion km.  The probe will attempt to characterise the surface and subsurface of the comet, and may start to answer some of the most fundamental questions about how life began on earth - since comets are thought to have been a source of organic compounds and water, which are essential for the creation of life!

Follow the mission at: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Rosetta/Touchdown!_Rosetta_s_Philae_probe_lands_on_comet


Philae lands on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (image: ESA)