Every year, a committee of experts sits down with a tough job to do: from among all ICREA publications, they must find a handful that stand out from all the others. This is indeed a challenge. The debates are sometimes heated and always difficult but, in the end, a shortlist of 24 publications is produced. No prize is awarded, and the only additional acknowledge is the honour of being chosen and highlighted by ICREA. Each piece has something unique about it, whether it be a particularly elegant solution, the huge impact it has in the media or the sheer fascination it generates as a truly new idea. For whatever the reason, these are the best of the best and, as such, we are proud to share them here.


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  • Energy multi-harvesting with halide perovskites: two for the price of one (2020)

    Catalán Bernabé, Gustau (ICN2)
    Stengel, Massimiliano (CSIC - ICMAB)

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    Energy multi-harvesting with halide perovskites: two for the price of one

    Capturing energy from the environment (aka energy harvesting) is a very active area of research on account of its usefulness for powering sensors, devices in inaccessible locations, or just generally reducing our dependence on non-renewable energy sources. Two of the most common energy-harvesting mechanisms are photovoltaics, which convert sunlight into electricity, and electromechanics, which convert mechanical vibrations into electricity.  These two phenomena are based on, respectively, semiconducting junctions and piezoelectric insulators. Unfortunately, the different material families on which these phenomena are based complicate their integration into single devices.

    This situation, however, has just changed with the discovery of a new effect, photoflexoelectricity, whereby photovoltaic semiconductor materials not only generate electricity when they vibrate, but the amount of electricity generated by the vibration multiplies by orders of magnitude under illumination. In a collaboration between several groups in China, the US and Catalonia, we have shown that halide perovskites, a family of highly efficient photovoltaic materials, display a photoflexoelectric effect whereby their bending-induced electricity is enhanced by light. We also show that photoflexoelectricity is not exclusive to halides but a general property of semiconductors. Photoflexoelectricity thus enables simultaneous electromechanical and photovoltaic energy harvesting in already commonly used photovoltaic materials and has the potential to revolutionize the field of energy harvesting.

  • Potential Applications of Plant Biotechnology against SARS-CoV-2 (2020)

    Christou, Paul (UdL)

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    Potential Applications of Plant Biotechnology against SARS-CoV-2

    Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a novel coronavirus responsible for an ongoing human pandemic (COVID-19). There is a massive international effort underway to develop diagnostic reagents, vaccines, and antiviral drugs in a bid to slow down the spread of the disease and save lives. One part of that international effort involves the research community working with plants, bringing researchers from all over the world together with commercial enterprises to achieve the rapid supply of protein antigens and antibodies for diagnostic kits, and scalable production systems for the emergency manufacturing of vaccines and antiviral drugs. Here, we look at some of the ways in which plants can and are being used in the fight against COVID-19.


  • A system to induce sexual conversion in malaria parasites (2020)

    Cortés Closas, Alfred (ISGlobal)

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    A system to induce sexual conversion in malaria parasites

    Transmission of malaria from an infected human to a mosquito vector requires that some of the asexually-growing parasites in the blood convert into sexual forms called gametocytes, which are the only form of the parasite that can infect mosquitoes. Gametocytes are resistant to the majority of antimalarial drugs that effectively kill disease-causing asexual forms, implying that successfully treated malaria patients can continue transmitting the disease for several days or even weeks. Therefore, the success of malaria control and eradication efforts largely depends on being able to develop drugs that are effective against gametocytes. This will require a better knowledge of gametocyte biology, but studies on gametocytes are hampered by their low relative abundance and because early sexual forms are morphologically undistinguishable from their asexual counterparts, from which they cannot be separated.


    In this article we describe the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology and an inducible recombinase to generate Plasmodium falciparum parasites in which expression of the master regulator pfap2-g can be conditionally induced, resulting in massive sexual conversion (Fig. 1). Using these engineered parasite lines, we obtained >90% pure, synchronous populations of parasites at the initial stages of sexual development, including previously elusive sexually committed schizonts and sexual rings. To demonstrate the utility of the system, we provide a detailed transcriptomic and phenotypic characterization of these developmental stages, which identified the specific upregulated and downregulated genes that mark early sexual development. Our system will enable the characterization of early gametocytes at multiple additional levels, and also efficient screening of drugs against parasites at different stages of sexual development.

  • A novel factor to boost expansion of bone marrow-derived stem cells (2020)

    Cosma, Maria Pia (CRG)

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    A novel factor to boost expansion of bone marrow-derived stem cells

    Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) are responsible for the constant renewal of blood, producing billions of new cells every day. HSCs have unlimited potential to renew themselves for the entire lifespan of an organism, giving rise to every type of blood cell. HSCs have great potential in treating incurable cancers, autoimmune diseases and inherited blood disorders. However, just 1 in 2500 cells in the bone marrow are HSCs, a scarcity that limits their use in medical procedures.

    One way of obtaining more HSCs is by expanding the existing number found in the bone marrow, circulating blood or cord blood. A second way is by reprogramming other blood stem cells so that they acquire some of the self-renewing characteristics typical of HSCs. 

    In collaboration with the group of Andrea Califano (Columbia University, USA), we used an algorithm called VIPER to identify proteins capable of reprograming other blood stem cells. Out of eight potential candidates identified by the algorithm, just one – a gene known as BAZ2B – was able to significantly expand the number of HSCs in blood from the umbilical cord. 

    BAZ2B was able to reprogram blood stem cells to an HSC-like state by rearranging their chromatin, opening up unique regions in the genome that were previously inaccessible. The resulting cells successfully transplanted into the bone marrow of immunocompromised mice, could renew the growth of the tissue. 

  • Turbulent-like dynamics in the human brain (2020)

    Deco, Gustavo (UPF)

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    Turbulent-like dynamics in the human brain

    Most people know turbulence mainly from the experience of flying, yet turbulence is a fundamental feature of nature and found everything from rivers to galaxies.

    Giants of modern physics and mathematics like Andrey Kolmogorov, Yosihiki Kuramoto and Werner Heisenberg have succeeded in establishing some of the organising principles of turbulence. While most famous for his work in quantum physics, Heisenberg was equally obsessed with turbulence and discovered some of the fundamental statistical rules in 1946.

    Yet, it is only with the new paper ”Turbulent-like dynamics in the human brain” published in the leading open-access journal Cell Reports on  8 December 2020 that researchers have turned their attention to turbulence in the human brain. Resulting from an international collaboration between Center for Brain and Cognition at University Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona (Spain) and Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford and Center for Music in the Brain, University of Aarhus, Profs Gustavo Deco and Morten L Kringelbach have discovered turbulent-like dynamics in human brain data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) recordings from over 1000 participants.

    Previous research has shown that turbulence is the optimal way of cascading energy across spacetime over many scales, which is not just a visually pleasing phenomenon but as a fundamental organising principle of physical systems. It has also been shown to have significant relevant practical applications from improving chemical plants to airplanes and windmills. Our new results reveal a novel way of analysing and modelling whole-brain dynamics that suggests a turbulent-like dynamic intrinsic backbone facilitating large scale network communication. This new insight could revolutionise our understanding of brain function.

    Prof Kringelbach adds: “This new finding provides a novel yet solid framework that could be used for new biomarkers for neuropsychiatric disease. In the coming years, this framework could potentially lead to novel interventions that could improve the mental health of many people, especially after this turbulent pandemic”.

  • Extracellular vesicles play an important role in the pathology of ‘Plasmodium vivax’ malaria (2020)

    del Portillo Obando, Hernando A. (ISGlobal)

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    Extracellular vesicles play an important role in the pathology of ‘Plasmodium vivax’ malaria

    Plasmodium vivax is the most widely distributed human malaria parasite, mostly outside sub-Saharan Africa, and responsible for millions of clinical cases yearly, including severe disease and death. The mechanisms by which P. vivax causes disease are not well understood. Recent evidence suggests that, similar to what has been observed with the more lethal P. falciparum, red blood cells infected by the parasite may accumulate in internal organs and that this could contribute to the pathology of the disease.


    To understand the molecular mechanisms responsible for this adhesion process, the research turned its attention to extracellular vesicles. These small particles surrounded by a membrane are naturally released from almost any cell and play a role in communication between cells. There is increasing evidence that they could be involved in a wide range of pathologies, including parasitic diseases.


    The research team isolated EVs (Extracellular Vesicles) from the blood of patients with acute P. vivax infection or from healthy volunteers and showed a very efficient uptake of the former by human spleen fibroblasts. Furthermore, this uptake induced the nuclear translocation of NF-kB (Nuclear Factor Kappa B) with concomitant expression of a molecule (ICAM-1) on the surface of the fibroblast which in turn serves as an “anchor” for the adherence of P. vivax-infected red blood cells.


    These findings reveal, for what we believe is the first time, a physiological role of EVs in malaria and support the existence of parasite populations adhering to particular cells of the spleen, where they can multiply while not circulating in the blood”. “Importantly, these hidden infections could represent an additional challenge to disease diagnosis and elimination efforts as they might be the source of asymptomatic infections.