Top Ten Science Stories of 2018

From finding the alleged Golden State Killer to ‘gene-edited babies’ – it’s time to take a look at the issues that shook the science world over the past 12 months.

In New Zealand, an onslaught of environmental woes threatened our taonga, and we stepped up our defence against cattle and kauri diseases, our aversion to plastic and our policy response to threats brought on by climate change.

Further afield, we saw the cryptocurrency market crash, mourned the death of renowned genius Stephen Hawking, and watched a dying man take on Monsanto.

Below are our picks on some of the biggest national and international science stories that made headlines. Feel free to republish or re-purpose this content. Let us know if you spot any major omissions.


Plastic not-so fantastic: In August, the Government pledged to ban single-use plastic bags and opened a consultation process, which showed 92 per cent of submissions in support of a compulsory phase out. It will come into effect mid-2019. Biodegradable and compostable bags – and whether they are any better for the environment – was also in the spotlight, with the new Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment urging greater clarity around the definitions.

In November, David Seymour caused alarm by claiming Kiwis using reusable bags could die from food-borne illnesses, but his view was based on a debunked study from San Francisco – which Kiwi experts were quick to point out.

More from the SMC: Single use plastic bag ban – Expert Reaction; Caution urged over biodegradable bags – Expert ReactionBiodegradable and compostable plastics in the environment – Expert Reaction; BPA replacements show hormone-mimicking issues in mice – Expert Reaction

Mycoplasma bovis: The devastating cattle disease, first found in the South Island in 2017, “spread beyond all expectations” this year. In March, scientific testing on several infected farms confirmed the origin of the cattle disease was not endemic, so the Ministry for Primary Industries announced plans to cull more than 22,000 cattle.

In May, the Government announced an $886m eradication plan. More than 150,000 cattle will be culled as part of a 10-year process as New Zealand attempts to be the first country to successfully quash the disease. Imported bull semen has been labelled the likely source of the disease,  but this remains unconfirmed.

More from the SMC: Cull begins on infected farms – In the News; Impact of Mycoplasma bovis on cow welfare – Expert Reaction, Impacts of Mycoplasma bovis eradication – Expert Reaction, Mycoplasma bovis spreads “beyond all expectation” – In the News

The meth house myth: A major report from the office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor denounced the need for testing for methamphetamine contamination in homes where manufacture wasn’t suspected, stating mould carried a greater risk to human health than third-party exposure to meth. The report led to the adoption of a new testing threshold and an apology from Housing NZ to the 800 tenants who were wrongly displaced by the needless testing, who are now being compensated for the disruption

The report was one of Sir Peter Gluckman’s last as chief science advisor. He was succeeded by Prof Juliet Gerrard in July, who will initially hold the position for a three-year term.

More from the SMC: Chief scientist reports on meth-contaminated houses – In the News, PM’s new Chief Science Advisor – Expert Reaction

Meningococcal W: An outbreak of a deadly strain of meningococcal disease killed six people this year – three of whom were in Northland. As of late November, 29 people had contracted the MenW strain – including seven in Northland – prompting a targeted vaccination programme and emergency vaccination stations in the region. The Immunisation Advisory Centre’s Dr Helen Petousis-Harris says we need to take MenW “very seriously”, and a sudden surge in the strain in many countries has prompted huge demand for a vaccine that isn’t currently on our immunisation schedule.

More from the SMC: Meningococcal W on the rise – Expert Reaction, Mass meningococcal vaccination in Northland, Killer meningococcal disease outbreak – some context – Sciblogs

Climate change policy: New Zealand has taken bold steps towards a greener future this year, with policy-makers targeting oil and methane. In April, the Government announced it would not hand out any new offshore oil and gas exploration permits in most regions. Then in June, the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill laid out how the Government plans to transition New Zealand to a low-emission economy by 2050. A discussion document follows earlier recommendations that suggested setting separate domestic targets for long-lived gases and methane – which had a shorter lifespan, re-igniting debate over the issue. An independent Climate Change Commission will be set up next year to implement the proposed Zero Carbon Act, but until then an interim committee has been set up to begin the low-emissions transition.

More from the SMC: No new offshore oil exploration permits, Productivity Commission on a low-emissions economy – Expert reaction, Zero Carbon Bill – Expert Reaction, Interim climate committee announced, How does methane contribute to global warming – Expert Reaction

Biosecurity battles: If M.bovis wasn’t enough of a headache for MPI this year, a hearty helping of kauri dieback, stink bugs, and myrtle rust also created various curveballs. In February, car shipments were turned away at the border when they were found to be infested with brown marmorated stink bugs – which have the potential to cause billions of dollars damage to crops. Their enemy, samurai wasps, are at the ready to attack in the case of an outbreak, following pre-approval from the Environmental Protection Agency. Then in November, Newsroom revealed a ship bound for New Zealand was carrying stink bugs, but was stopped in Australia. Just this month, an eBay user in Oamaru had shoes turn up with 26 of the live bugs inside – which the buyer reported to MPI.

Fungal diseases kauri dieback and myrtle rust research received a $13.75m funding boost which will be administered through the BioHeritage National Science Challenge. In July, kauri dieback was found to be in a tree just 60 metres from Tāne Mahuta, however, DOC has confirmed Tāne himself is not infected.

More from the SMC: Kauri dieback and myrtle rust research funding boost – Expert Reaction, Lose kauri and we lose a piece of ourselves – Amanda Black and Monica Gerth, Kauri dieback and pine plantations – Expert Reaction, Approval for samurai wasp to slay stink bug – In the News

Gene editing in primary industries: New Zealand was urged to take a good, hard look at its conservative approach to gene editing when it comes to primary production or risk being left behind. A discussion paper from the Royal Society Te Apārangi stated embracing gene editing technology could allow us to create disease-resistant mānuka honey and remove certain allergens from milk. It was also one of Sir Peter Gluckman’s final rallying cries as he left the office of the PMCSA.

More from the SMC: Gene editing in primary industries – Expert Reaction, Regulator asks how food editing by new genetic techniques should be treated – Expert Reaction, EU court rules GMO laws apply to gene-edited plants – Expert Reaction

1080 back in the spotlight: In August, there was a new social media trend: Facebook live videos were being inundated with ‘Ban 1080’ comments, which were traced back to an organised effort to spur discussion about the controversial toxin. The campaign coincided with a hikoi to Parliament, which included protests around the country and culminated with dead birds and mice dumped on the steps of Parliament.

In September, eight cattle died following a drop over Waikato land, and 1080 was later confirmed to be the cause of death – which saw the Department of Conservation launch an independent review into the incident. Experts say, while not a perfect poison, 1080 remains the most viable and effective option we have in pest control and argued it posed no serious risk to humans in waterways.

More from the SMC: 1080 use in NZ – Expert Q&A, ‘I would be happy to drink the water downstream of the 1080 drop’ – Belinda Cridge

Firefighting foams: A formal investigation, launched last year, into the use of certain restricted PFAS fire-fighting foams found some airports still had them in stock, despite their use being illegal since 2006. The Environmental Protection Agency, which is leading the investigation, served each airports’ fire equipment supplier with a compliance notice, ordering it to stop using PFOS and PFOA foams.

Seven water samples in Palmerston North tested above the guidelines for PFOS in September, but the EPA said it couldn’t reveal which sites were the source of the contamination. In a December report, the Ministry for the Environment found the foams pose clear threats to the ecosystem and identified insufficient data on PFAS, and “a complete lack of any toxicological data for NZ species”.

More from the SMC: Fire-fighting foams – Expert Q&A

Mental health: The Government’s eagerly-awaited Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry report was publicly released in December, following 26 public consultation meetings around the country. The report labelled parts of the current system outdated and inadequate and made 40 recommendations – including a target to reduce the suicide rate by 20 per cent by 2030 and reforming the Mental Health Act. It has been lauded for being ambitious, but criticised for being vague in parts. Cabinet will formally respond to the Inquiry report in March next year. The timeline will allow the Government to account for spending in Budget 2019, “although it will clearly take more than one Budget to address all the issues raised in the report,” Health Minister David Clark said.

More from the SMC: Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry – Expert Reaction, Provisional suicide statistics – Expert Reaction


Curiosity finds ancient carbon on Mars: NASA’s Curiosity rover unearthed evidence of organic molecules preserved in three-billion-year-old Martian rocks, which may mean the planet once supported life as we know it. Curiosity also found that Mars has seasonal methane cycles which peak in the summer of the red planet’s Northern Hemisphere.

In November, Mars was in the news again as NASA’s InSight rover joined the band of Martian rovers with the mission of drilling into the planet’s surface to search for clues of how the planet formed. NASA also announced the site of their Mars 2020 rover, which is due to touch down in February 2021 to search for signs of ancient life following the earlier discovery.

More from the SMC: Building blocks for life found on Mars – In the News, Mars 2020 landing site – Expert Reaction

RoundUp court case: A landmark case saw a San Francisco jury award US$289 million to a groundskeeper who claimed years of applying Monsanto’s RoundUp herbicide gave him cancer.

The case put the pesticide back in the spotlight, with Environment Minister Eugenie Sage saying that it would be added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of hazardous substances up for reassessment. New Zealand scientists warned against changing our policies based on a single US court case, and the EPA’s general manager said the ruling did not change their stance, which is that “products containing glyphosate remain safe to use when you follow the instructions on the product’s label”.

More from the SMC: Monsanto loses glyphosate cancer case – Expert Reaction

Canterbury Distinguished Professor Roy Kerr with Stephen Hawking. Photo supplied by Roy Kerr.

Stephen Hawking dies: In March, world-renowned cosmologist and theoretical physics pioneer Stephen Hawking died at age 76. Tributes flew in from across the globe, with most highlighting his work in high-energy physics and our understanding of black holes.

Hawking was diagnosed with a degenerative motor neuron disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) when he was 21 and was given only a few years to live. The illness kept him in a wheelchair for most of his life and he was only able to speak using a voice synthesiser. His continued work on the mysteries of the universe has been an inspiration, with many citing his book A Brief History of Time alongside his courage and persistence among his greatest achievements.

More from the SMC: Cosmologist Stephen Hawking dies age 76 – Expert Reaction

Meeting the Paris Targets: There’s been no shortage of major climate change studies this year, with news it will be abnormally warm till 2022, warnings the Earth is halfway towards a climate ‘tipping point’, and data indicating Antarctica has lost 3 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992.

The biggest splash was made by the IPCC special report on limiting warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, though a subsequent report from the United Nations released ahead of the COP24 conference in Poland indicated that most countries won’t meet the Paris Agreement’s 2020 targets until at least 2030.

Even if we do limit global warming to less than 2C above pre-industrial levels, it might not be enough to stop the collapse of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and we might already be locked into sea level rise of 0.7 to 1.2 metres by 2300.

More from the SMC: Sea level rise expected even with Paris Agreement – Expert reaction, Antarctic ice loss – Expert Reaction, Earth could enter hothouse climate – In the News, It’s going to be abnormally warm till 2022 – Expert Reaction, IPCC 1.5C special report – Expert Reaction, Ice sheets under 1.5C warming – Expert Reaction

Regulating gene-edited food: Jurisdictions around the world have been deciding how they should treat gene-edited food. Australasia’s food safety regulator – Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) – called for suggestions in February about how it should consider foods that have been made using new genetic techniques that aren’t currently covered by Australian or New Zealand laws.

In March, the US Department of Agriculture gave plants developed by genome editing the green light, declaring they won’t regulate plants that “could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques”. The EU took the opposite approach, with Europe’s highest court ruling in July that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same stringent regulations as genetically modified organisms.

The FSANZ report considered both options and will make a recommendation in early 2019.

More from the SMC: Regulator asks how food editing by new genetic techniques should be treated – Expert Reaction, EU court rules GMO laws apply to gene-edited plants – Expert Reaction

DNA database leads to arrest: The alleged ‘Golden State Killer’ was arrested in April for dozens of historical rape and murder charges based on a DNA match from a relative on an online genealogical database. The case represents the first time police have used private genetic data from ancestry websites to solve a crime.

Since then there’s been a flurry of papers questioning the ethics of police using evidence from open genealogy databases, as it’s unclear whether users knew that their genetic information could be made available for forensic purposes. A US study found that more than 60 per cent of European Americans can already be traced through their relatives and that once a genetic database covers roughly 2 per cent of a target population, nearly any person within that group can be matched to at least a third cousin level.

More from the SMC: Is your genome really your own? The public and forensic value of DNA – Sciblogs, Expanding on Golden State: Solving crimes using ancestry databases – Scimex, What’s the future of using online ancestry sites to catch criminals? – Scimex

Gene-edited babies: The first gene-edited babies may have been born this year, inciting global outrage in the scientific community who called the move ‘reckless’ and ‘needless’. Chinese scientist Dr He Jiankui claims to have overseen the birth of twin girls whose embryos had been edited by CRISPR to alter a single gene linked to HIV resistance.

Allowing gene-edited embryos to survive past 14 days is illegal in China (and most other jurisdictions), leading the scientific community to broadly condemn He’s actions as unsafe and unethical. Scientists were particularly baffled by the fact that He chose to edit a gene related to a health issue that has alternative treatments already available – any possible ethical use of CRISPR in humans has mostly centred around incurable and fatal diseases.

More from the SMC: Reports of a gene-edited baby in China – Expert Reaction

Russian spy poisoning: For months, the world was captivated by the Cold War-style poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in Salisbury, UK. Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in March and hospitalised for weeks after the attack.

In September, the UK charged two Russians with the nerve agent attack, prompting many countries to condemn Russia for the use of chemical weapons, including New Zealand. Another Salisbury woman, Dawn Sturgess, died from exposure to Novichok in July after she and her partner Charles Rowley came into contact with the poison from a perfume bottle found by Rowley.

More from the SMC: UK woman dies after Novichok nerve agent poisoning – UK SMC Expert Reaction; Nerve agent being substance identified in case of Russian ex-spy and his daughter – UK SMC Expert Reaction

Cambridge Analytica scandal: Facebook’s reputation took a nose-dive after a whistleblower revealed the company had covered up a huge data breach. The Guardian reported data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested personal information from 50 million users (this figure was later revised to 87 million users after an internal investigation by Facebook) and used it to build a system that could target US voters with personalised political advertisements ahead of the 2016 election. The system was first trialled on 1 million British users before the Brexit vote.

The UK slapped Facebook with a £500,000 fine for failing to protect the privacy of its users, and Mark Zuckerberg was forced to front up about the breach to the US House of Representatives and the Senate.

More from the SMC: Psychographics: the behavioural analysis that helped Cambridge Analytica know voters’ minds – Sciblogs

Cryptocurrency crash: After a boom in 2017, the price of Bitcoin fell over 60 per cent in the first month of the year triggering a cascade of cryptocurrency selloffs. The crash was partly caused by regulation in China, which cracked down on Bitcoin mining in January.

Several studies this year have pointed out the environmental costs of mining cryptocurrencies, with one paper noting that the energy cost of producing them is now the same as regular coins, and another noting that Bitcoin mining alone uses an equivalent amount of electricity as Ireland.

Despite the tumult, a report from the Law Foundation suggested New Zealand should get on board with blockchain and cryptocurrencies to transform how business is done.

More from the SMC: Cryptocurrencies here to stay – Expert Reaction

All images from iStock except: Curiosity finds ancient carbon on Mars – NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS; Stephen Hawking dies – © Roy Kerr (used with permission).