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Top 10 Science Stories of 2015


What were the biggest national and international science stories of 2015?

It has been a big year for science, both at home and abroad. We have seen water on Mars and a heart on Pluto, signed a global climate deal and grappled with new gene editing technologies.

Closer to home, we have seen fruit fly invaders shut down part of Auckland, found something fishy going on with supplements and uncovered evidence of ancient earthquakes under New Zealand.

As 2015 draws to a close, we've picked some of the biggest national and international science stories that made headlines.


Genome reveals kiwi’s nightlife
In July German researchers sequenced the genome - the entire DNA blueprint - of the North Island brown kiwi. Not only was the kiwi genome found to be one of the largest bird genomes sequenced to date, but the team also identified evolutionary changes in its DNA that help explain the bird’s unique adaptations to nocturnality, including black and white vision and heightened sense of smell.

New Zealand experts concerned over the lack of Kiwi involvement in the research called for a 100 Taonga genomes project to map the genomes of Aotearoa’s most iconic species.

Environmental report card for NZ
October saw the publication of the country's first ‘State of the Environment’ report since 2007. Environment Aotearoa 2015, jointly released by Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry for the Environment, drew together numerous sources of data to provide a big picture look at New Zealand’s environmental performance. The report highlighted some areas of concern including increased greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of farming on water and soil quality.

Fishy supplements
The supplements industry was in the spotlight in January when research led by scientists at the University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute found that fish oil supplements sold in New Zealand contain less omega-3 fatty acids than their labels claim. Analysing 32 brands of fish oil capsules marketed in New Zealand, the researchers found that most products contained less than two thirds the amount stated. An industry analysis released in November expressed concern over the accuracy of the results.

1080 milk scare
Infant milk sections of supermarkets were put under surveillance and our milk powder export market took a hit in March after it was revealed that Fonterra and Federated Farmers had received an anonymous letters threatening to poison milk powder with sodium fluoroacetate -1080 poison. Discussion around the toxicology of 1080 the security of food production systems continued for weeks. The culprit, arrested in October, was turned out a 60 year-old businessman, who was charged with blackmail for financial gain.

Surprise sanctuary for Kermadecs
It was a very green announcement that came out of the blue. In September the Government declared that the Kermadec Islands and surrounding ocean – one of the Pacific’s most diverse and pristine marine environments – is to be protected from absolutely all forms of fishing and mining, including research-based sampling. The Government says the new Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary will hopefully be in place by October next year.

El Nino: will he - won't he?
No one is arguing that we’ve got a ‘little boy’ El Nino weather pattern on our hands now, but back in May it was a different story. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology and MetService called it in mid-May, but NIWA was reluctant to back them until a more robust signal could be detected. Now, with more evidence, everyone agrees it’s on and they reckon it’s going to be a biggie; farmers are warned to prepare for droughts in eastern regions and heavy rain in western areas in the coming months.

Fruit fly invaders put Auckland on lockdown
The February discovery of a solitary male Queensland fruit fly in Auckland had biosecurity authorities on high alert and prompted a lockdown on the movement of fruit and vegetables in the area. The full weight of New Zealand’s biosecurity system was brought to bear on wiping out any trace of the invasive insect, which posed a multimillion dollar threat to New Zealand fruit exports. Several more flies were discovered, setting off months of containment procedures and trapping in the area. Only in December was the invasion officially confirmed eradicated.

Cannabidiol oil prompts medical debate
The debate around cannabis-derived medication sparked up in June with the case of Alex Renton, a 19 year old suffering from debilitating seizures. Alex’s family campaigned to to get permission to use an unproven treatment: Elixinol, a hemp derived oil containing the chemical cannabidiol. Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne eventually allowed the importation of the medication on compassionate grounds following expert advice. Although Alex died in July, public debate over the wider issue of cannabis-derived medicines continues.

Mega-thrust quakes
New evidence of historic earthquakes under central New Zealand was revealed by GNS Science in May. Sediment cores from a salt marsh near Blenheim showed evidence of two strong subduction ‘mega-thrust’ earthquakes generated by the Hikurangi margin, where the Pacific and Australian plates meet off the east coast of the North Island. The two earthquakes took place within the last 1000 years, and one was accompanied by a tsunami, according to the research.

Mitochondrial swap rewrites textbooks
Wellington’s Malaghan Institute made international headlines back in January, when researchers observed DNA moving between mitochondria -sub cellular power factories - in animal cancer cells. The discovery, according the scientists, fundamentally changes our understanding of cell biology and could lead to an entirely new field of synthetic biology and the treatment of hundreds of diseases.


Decision in Paris
World leaders, scientists and policymakers descended on Paris this December to thrash out a deal to tackle climate change. Climate news throughout the year has been leading up to the 21st Conference of the Parties - COP21 - where over 190 countries have now agreed on an accord marking the first steps towards limiting global warming to 2 degrees.

New Zealand’s commitments, laid out in July, received some criticism. Meanwhile 2015 is likely to be the hottest year on record.

Nepal quake
Early on Saturday 25 April, a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck central Nepal, killing more than 3,000 people and causing billions of dollars of damage. Poor building standards were blamed for many of the casualties, although landslides also claimed lives. New Zealand experts were involved in using satellite data to create hazard maps post-quake.

Mars moisture
Claims of ‘liquid water on mars’ made headlines not once but twice this year, prompting speculation of Martian microbial life. In April, the Curiosity rover detected traces of water vapor in a crater, suggesting that salty water flows might be present. More evidence came in September with imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing rivulets of moisture in craters shifting with temperature changes. No little green men... yet.

Gene-editing human embryos
In April, Chinese researchers revealed they had used the cutting-edge CRISPR technique to tweak the genomes of human embryos. While heralded as a landmark for research into tackling hereditary conditions, the study also revealed that process was far from perfect and had unintended genetic side effects.

The intense ethical debate kicked off by the study culminated in an international summit in Washington in December to discuss and address concerns.

Ancient cousin uncovered
In September a National Geographic Society expedition announced they had uncovered the bones of an ancient human-like hominid, dubbed Homo naledi. The remains of at least 15 individuals, recovered from a underground cave system in South Africa, suggest naledi were pretty good at both walking and climbing trees while also being capable of fine toolmaking.

From Pluto, with love
The heart-shaped plain on the surface of Pluto became an internet meme overnight as NASA released the first close up photos taken by the New Horizons spacecraft as it drifted past the dwarf planet. Icy mountains on the surface and a new, crisp view of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, were among the the pictures collected.

‘Mini ice-age’ mania
A small study examining sunspot cycles created a flare-up of headlines in July claiming we are headed for a ‘mini-ice age’ in as little as 15 years. Scientists around the globe subsequently poured cold water on the story, explaining that the actual impact of decreased sunspot activity would be minimal and numerous other factors played into ‘ice age’ climate shifts.

The WHO review of meat and cancer risk dominated the news media in October and left carnivores despondent with the conclusion that processed meat, including bacon, should be classified as carcinogenic. The unclear way the classifications were made (they don’t state how carcinogenic a substance is), led to much confusion and unfounded comparisons with cigarettes and even plutonium. In short, bacon slightly increases your risk of cancer - but is not radioactive.

'That dress’
A bizarre twist of human visual perception had the world's population split on the colour of a dress in a photo: gold and white or blue and black? The image quickly went viral in February as viewers simply couldn’t believe others were not seeing the same colours as they were. The illusion was explained as a quirk of how our brains try to accommodate for different levels of lighting, but that didn’t stop it being a global phenomenon.

Tim Hunt sexism row
The scientific community engaged in some serious soul searching after Nobel Prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt made sexist comments at a conference in Seoul in June. His remarks on the “trouble with girls” triggered a social media furore that led to Prof Hunt losing a number of institutional positions, and some commentators decrying ‘trial by Twitter’.

The episode drew attention to ongoing discrimination facing female scientists, as well as spawning a backlash campaign on Twitter: #distractinglysexy.