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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  • A rapid mechanism for muscle self-repair independent of stem cells (2021)

    Muñoz-Cánoves, Pura (UPF)

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    A rapid mechanism for muscle self-repair independent of stem cells

    Muscle is known to regenerate through a complex process that involves several steps and depends on stem cells. Our work published this year in Science describes a new mechanism for muscle repair after physiological damage relying on the rearrangement of muscle fiber nuclei, and independent of muscle stem cells. This protective mechanism opens the road to a broader understanding of muscle repair in physiology and disease.

    Skeletal muscle tissue, is formed by cells (fibers) with more than one nucleus. Despite the plasticity of these fibers, even in physiological conditions, regeneration is vital for muscle to endure the mechanical stress of contraction, which often leads to cellular damage. Although muscle regeneration has been deeply investigated in the last decades, most studies were centered on mechanisms involving several cells, including muscle stem cells, which are required upon extensive muscle damage.

    This work shows an alternative mechanism of muscle tissue repair that is muscle fiber autonomous: observing different in vitro models of injury and models of exercise in mice and humans upon injury, we found that nuclei are attracted to the damage site, accelerating the repair of the contractile units. We further showed that the movement of nuclei to injury sites resulted in local delivery of mRNA molecules. These mRNA molecules are translated into proteins at the site of injury to act as building blocks for muscle repair. This muscle fiber self-repair process occurs rapidly both in mice and humans after exercise-induced muscle injury, and thus represents a time- and energy-efficient protective mechanism for the repair of minor lesions.

    The nuclei movement during development organelles was already described, but the reasons why nuclei move are largely unknown. In this work we show for the first time a functional relevance for this phenomenon in adulthood during cellular repair and regeneration. This finding constitutes an important advance in the understanding of muscle biology, in physiology (including exercise physiology) and muscle dysfunction.

  • Catalysts removing polluting molecules from air at very low temperatures (2021)

    Neyman, Konstantin M (UB)

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    Catalysts removing polluting molecules from air at very low temperatures

    Air pollution from fuel combustion is a great environmental problem. The presence of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide (CO) in the air of densely populated cities seriously harms the human health and increases mortality. Collaboration between researchers from the Universitat de Barcelona (UB) and the Boreskov Institute of Catalysis (BIC) of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk opens a way for reducing polluting car emissions. In a study published in the Applied Catalysis B: Environmental journal the scientists propose design principles and synthesize catalysts for transforming toxic molecules in air at temperatures even below 0ºC.

    Most of toxic molecules generated in combustion engines are abated by transforming them into harmless molecules in the catalytic converters. The majority of the harmful pollutions during an average drive are cold-start emissions generated by cars during the first few minutes after ignition, when the motors are insufficiently warm for the catalyst to start operating. Thus, the design of catalysts working at low temperatures remains a challenge.

    To address this challenge, the BIC researchers explored low-temperature efficiency of catalysts and identified particular formulations able to convert CO already at -50°C. This extraordinary low-temperature efficiency was achieved by dispersing metal platinum (Pt) on nanostructured cerium oxide (CeO2). The key to this performance is the synergy between the oxide and distributed thereon oxidized platinum. These components can be identified spectroscopically, but characterizing their roles requires computational modelling. The UB team of ICREA Professor Konstantin Neyman modelled these materials using sophisticated quantum mechanical computer calculations to decipher the role of each component in the outstanding catalytic performance measured experimentally.

    The societal impact of this advancement in the developing of catalytic materials for the low-temperature oxidation of air pollutants is not limited to automotive emissions. These materials can also be used for the oxidative abatement of the pollutants produced by stationary sources, such as fossil-fuelled power plants.

  • Building solidarity networks during the covid -19 pandemic in Brazil (2021)

    Ortega, Francisco (URV)

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    Building solidarity networks during the covid -19 pandemic in Brazil

    In the face of persistent neglect and denial of the severity of COVID-19 by the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, residents in many of Brazil’s favelas have been left to organise their own responses to the pandemic. Community leaders have raised funds and volunteers are going door-to-door to distribute food, masks, and hygiene kits, using megaphones to educate residents about mask use, physical distancing, and handwashing. Local journalists are also using social media to counter fake news, and activists are converting schools into isolation wards, facilitating cash transfers, and fighting for the accurate documentation of COVID-19 deaths.  Solidarity practices in the favelas have much to teach global and public health experts. Published reports and the insights of eight activists involved in mutual aid whom we interviewed reveal how solidarity practices challenge key assumptions in conventional global health and reveal the merits of social medicine in Latin America and global social medicine. This is an opportune time to underscore a vision of global social medicine that emphasises horizontal cross-community learning and solidarity, the reinvention of democratic civil society, and the creation of infrastructures that support self-determination.

  • New tools for designing your own enzyme  (2021)

    Osuna Oliveras, Sílvia (UdG)

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    New tools for designing your own enzyme 

    Enzymes are superb catalysts capable of accelerating the chemical reactions by as many as seventeen orders of magnitude. They achieve such impressive rate accelerations by decreasing the activation barriers of reactions, making them possible at lower temperatures and pressures. Apart from their high efficiency, enzymes are specific and selective, and operate under mild biological conditions. These features make enzyme-catalyzed processes an attractive alternative for chemical manufacturing. Still the application of enzymes in industry is quite limited, as most industrial processes lack a natural enzyme able to perform the desired transformations, to accommodate the non-natural substrate(s) of interest, and/or their low stability in non-optimal conditions.

    Enzyme design: Enzymes are typically engineered for catalytic activity, enantioselectivity, thermodynamic stability, substrate specificity, stability in non-aqueous solvents and co-solvents. Available enzyme design approaches can be classified into rational design, and Directed Evolution (DE). Multiple rational design strategies exist, but most of them focus on alterations in the active site pocket and the available channels for substrate binding or product release. This is in contrast with DE that introduces mutations all around the protein structure.

    How can distal activity-enhancing mutations be predicted? So far this has been highly challenging given the large number of possibilities to mutate. We have solved this challenge by accurately considering the enzyme ability to adopt multiple conformations key for their enzymatic function, and evaluating the most important positions involved in the conformational transitions. We demonstrated that by combining our new correlation-based tools with multiple sequence reconstruction (MSA) the prediction of distal activity-enhancing mutations can become within reach.

  • Synthesis of 2D porous crystalline materials in simulated microgravity (2021)

    Puigmartí Luis, Josep (UB)

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    Synthesis of 2D porous crystalline materials in simulated microgravity

    Crystallization studies conducted in space laboratories, which are costly and unaffordable for most research laboratories, showed the valuable effects of microgravity during the crystal growth process and the morphogenesis of materials. Now, a research study led by a scientific team of the University of Barcelona, has created an easy and efficient method to achieve experimentation conditions of microgravity on Earth that simulate those in space.

  • Device fingerprint of Magnetic Topological Matter (2021)

    Roche, Stephan (ICN2)

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    Device fingerprint of Magnetic Topological Matter

    Topological insulators are bulk insulator but with surface states which are particularly robust to disorder and crystalline imperfections, for time reversal symmetric systems. Additionally, the surface topological electronic states exhibit a peculiar spin texture as well as a so-called massless Dirac energy dispersion, which make them fascinating materials for fundamental research but also in view of spin-based technologies. Furthermore, when magnetically doped or in close contact with another magnetic material, the induced local breaking of time reversal symmetry leads to gapped surface states, and the formation of new edge states at the surface boundaries, carrying a single quantum channel. Magnetic topological insulators are currently investigated for their future use in resistance standardization (using the so-called quantum anomalous Hall effect), as well as for their use in future spintronic applications. A challenging problem is however to probe the intrinsic features of these nontrivial edge states,

    By elaborating a generic model of three-dimensional magnetically doped topological insulators embedded into a multiterminal device with ferromagnetic contacts near the top surface, and using nonlocal transport formalism, we found that the resistance measurements could give direct access to the local spin features of the chiral edge modes. Indeed, our simulations evidence that local spin polarization at the hinges inverts its sign between the top and bottom surfaces. At the opposite edge, the topological state with inverted spin polarization propagates in the reverse direction. As a result, a large resistance switch between forward and backward propagating states takes place, driven by the matching between the spin polarized hinges and the ferromagnetic contacts.

    This feature is general to the ferromagnetic, antiferromagnetic, and canted antiferromagnetic phases, and enables the design of spin-sensitive devices. Our theoretical prediction opens a way to confirm the formation of those topological edge states, an essential step before further controlling those states for a variety of applications.