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  the most outstanding publications of the year 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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  • Towards a climate resilient healthy future (2022)

    Lowe, Rachel (BSC-CNS)

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    Towards a climate resilient healthy future

    The Lancet Countdown in Europe is a new transdisciplinary research collaboration monitoring progress on health and climate change in Europe. Building on the work of the Lancet Countdown and other regional centres, it leverages the wealth of data and cross-disciplinary expertise in Europe, to develop region-specific indicators to address the main challenges and opportunities of Europe’s response to climate change for health. As one of the largest current and historical contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and the largest provider of financing for climate change mitigation and adaptation, Europe is a key stakeholder in the world's response to climate change and has a global responsibility to create more prosperous, equitable, and healthy economies that are based on zero-carbon energy. The collaboration published its first indicator report in The Lancet Public Health on October 2022, including 33 policy-relevant indicators developed by 44 researchers from 29 institutions across Europe1. These indicators track progress on health and climate change in terms of impacts, adaptation, mitigation and co-benefits, economics and finance, and politics and governance. The report shows alarming increases in health-related impacts from climate change across Europe. To meet the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement, Europe should reach net-zero emissions by 2050. However, Europe’s current emissions remain excessively high, and this is costing millions of lives each year. Ambitious adaptation and mitigation strategies are needed not only to protect lives and wellbeing in Europe, but also in countries that have historically contributed least to climate change. Key Lancet Countdown in Europe indicators were included in the European Environment agency policy report on heat and infectious diseases2 and incorporated in the European Climate and Health Observatory

  • New world record in fusion energy (2022)

    Mantsinen, Mervi Johanna (BSC-CNS)

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    New world record in fusion energy

    Important fusion energy record results at Joint European Torus (JET) were announced in February. Fusion, the process that powers stars like our sun, promises an inherently safe, near-limitless clean electricity source for the long term, using small amounts of fuel that can be sourced worldwide from inexpensive materials. The fusion process brings together atoms of light elements like hydrogen at high temperatures to form helium and release tremendous energy as heat, which can then be converted into electricity.

    The record 59 megajoules of sustained fusion energy was produced at JET by researchers from the EUROfusion consortium of experts, students and staff from across Europe, co-funded by the European Commission, including two members from my research group at Barcelona Supercomputing Center. The energy was released in plasma discharge 99971 which lasted about 10 seconds, and would be enough to boil a barrel of water.

    This achievement on JET, the largest and most powerful operational tokamak in the world at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) site in Oxford, almost triples the previous fusion energy record of 21.7 megajoules set there in 1997. It comes as part of a dedicated experimental campaign designed by EUROfusion to test over two decades’ worth of advances in fusion and optimally prepare for the start of the international ITER project. The record and the scientific data from these crucial experiments are a major boost for ITER, the larger and more advanced version of JET. ITER is a fusion research project based in the south of France. Supported by seven members – China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the USA – ITER aims to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy.

  • New genomic tools shed light on the evolutionary history of chimpanzees and contribute to their conservation (2022)

    Marquès Bonet, Tomàs (UPF)

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    New genomic tools shed light on the evolutionary history of chimpanzees and contribute to their conservation

    Chimpanzees inhabit the savannah and forest of tropical Africa. The climate and geographical area where they live have made difficult the preservation of ancient populations fossil record, in contrast to the many hominid sites preserved to this day - mainly in caves and temperate climates. Given the absence of chimpanzee fossils, the genetic information of today's populations becomes crucial to describe their evolutionary history, their genetic diversity and finally to contribute to their preservation.

    Our team together with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, has built the most extensive catalog of genomic diversity in wild chimpanzee populations to date. Genetic information has been retrieved non-invasively using new technologies, from hundreds of geolocated chimpanzee fecal samples. For the first time, methods applied to analyze ancient DNA in human populations have been used to retrieve genetic information from fecal samples in the study of great apes. The genomic tool they have developed will have direct applications for the conservation of chimpanzees, such as detecting poaching hotspots and identifying illegal trafficking routes to protect this endangered species.

  • Advances in our understanding of the mechanisms of tree mortality under rising drought, CO2 and vapor pressure deficit. (2022)

    Mencuccini, Maurizio (CREAF)

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    Advances in our understanding of the mechanisms of tree mortality under rising drought, CO2 and vapor pressure deficit.

    Drought-associated woody-plant mortality has been increasing in most regions with multi-decadal records and is projected to increase in the future, impacting terrestrial climate forcing, biodiversity and resource availability. The mechanisms underlying such mortality, however, are debated, owing to complex interactions between the drivers and the processes. In this Review, we synthesize knowledge of drought-related tree mortality under a warming and drying atmosphere with rising atmospheric CO2. Drought-associated mortality results from water and carbon depletion and declines in their fluxes relative to demand by living tissues. These pools and fluxes are interdependent and underlay plant defences against biotic agents. Death via failure to maintain a positive water balance is particularly dependent on soil-to-root conductance, capacitance, vulnerability to hydraulic failure, cuticular water losses and dehydration tolerance, all of which could be exacerbated by reduced carbon supply rates to support cellular survival or the carbon starvation process. The depletion of plant water and carbon pools is accelerated under rising vapour pressure deficit, but increasing CO2 can mitigate these impacts. Advancing knowledge and reducing predictive uncertainties requires the integration of carbon, water and defensive processes, and the use of a range of experimental and modelling approaches.

  • A DNA programable electrochemical sensor for the direct detection of proteins. (2022)

    Merkoçi, Arben (ICN2)

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    A DNA programable electrochemical sensor for the direct detection of proteins.

    There is a need for the sensitive and selective detection of proteins and antibodies for diagnosis of various disease. Currently multi-step procedures that are of high cost and with slow response times are employed. We overcome these limitations using the chemistry and programmability of DNA. To achieve a responding capability of DNA nanostructure its modification with two recognition elements that include two redox tag molecules  and a thiol group is achieved. The designed Y-shaped  DNA  “scaffold”  nanostructure  mimics  the  shape  and  the  conformational variability of IgG bivalent antibodies. We exploit the formation  of  a  bulky  target-receptor  complex  that  reduces  the  collisional  dynamics  of  the  Y-shaped  DNA  nanostructure producing a  decrease  in  the current which in turn is related  to  the  concentration of the biomarker to be analysed. This sensing platform was used to detect in a quantitative way two bivalent antibody targets  and  one  multivalent  protein  target.  To  perform  the  measurement,  there  is  no  need  for  washing  or  incubation and the developed device can be further integrated to mobile  phones  or  standalone setups offering a more efficient tool for future diagnostics. 

  • A genomic region that is exclusively dedicated to the formation and regeneration of a single organ (2022)

    Milán Kalbfleisch, Marco (IRB Barcelona)

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    A genomic region that is exclusively dedicated to the formation and regeneration of a single organ

    Wings have provided an evolutionary advantage to insects and have allowed them to diversify. In this article, the group led by Marco Milán identified in Drosophila a highly robust regulatory mechanism that ensures the specification and growth of the wing not only during normal development but also under stress conditions. The first mutation of the wingless gene was found by accident in Drosophila in the 1970s, following the observation of flies that did not possess wings, hence its name. Fifteen years after its discovery, the gene was found to be conserved in mammals, an event that gave rise to the discovery of the wnt gene family. Mutations in wnt genes may lead to various types of cancer. The wnt gene family, including its founding member, the wingless gene, regulates several embryonic development processes in both insects and mammals. However, if this is true, then why did the first mutation of the wingless gene discovered only affect the wings of Drosophila flies? Using gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas9, the group of Marco Milán has discovered an evolutionarily-conserved genomic region that regulates the expression of the Wingless protein that is exclusively dedicated to wing specification. Using functional assays, they found out that this regulatory region not only acts to promote wing formation but it also regenerates the wings when damaged. Authors identify two evolutionary conserved cis-regulatory modules within this enhancer that are utilized in a redundant manner to mediate these two activities through the use of distinct molecular mechanisms. All these results point to evolutionarily linked conservation of wing specification and regeneration to ensure robust development of the wing, perhaps the most relevant evolutionary novelty in insects.