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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  • Climate is a structural driver of infectious diseases worldwide: From malaria in Ethiopia to the COVID-19 pandemic (2021)

    Rodó i López, Xavier (ISGlobal)

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    Climate is a structural driver of infectious diseases worldwide: From malaria in Ethiopia to the COVID-19 pandemic

    The slowdown in global warming that was observed at the end of last century was reflected by a concomittant decrease in malaria transmission in the Ethiopian highlands, underscoring the close connection between climate and health. For several years there has been a heated debate on the impact of global warming on malaria incidence. It is believed that the largest effect could occur in the highlands, where lower temperatures limit vector abundance, leading to intermittent and seasonal disease outbreaks. We see that malaria epidemiology in these areas is strongly under climate control at all scales (months, years and even decades), which settles once and for all the debate on whether climate change is affecting or not the dynamics of malaria in Africa.

    Similarly, by using a statistical method specifically designed to detect transitory associations and a mathematical model, we could show that climate played a strong role in modulating COVID-19 transmission during the first three pandemic waves in both hemispheres. COVID-19 behaves like a seasonal infection linked to low temperatures and humidity, much like seasonal influenza. We analysed the association to temperature and humidity in the initial phase of SARS-CoV-2 spread in 162 countries across five continents, before changes in human behaviour and public health policies were put into place. Using an epidemiological model, we showed that incorporating temperature into the transmission rate works better for predicting the rise and fall of the different waves, particularly the first and third ones in Europe. Our study also supports the considerable contribution of airborne SARS-CoV-2 transmission and the need to shift to measures that promote “air hygiene”. 

  • Decentralizing World Literature Through Data Science (2021)

    Roig Sanz, Diana (UOC)

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    Decentralizing World Literature Through Data Science

    In the last two decades, computational tools have been used in the humanities and the social sciences to study patterns of cultural change, both in the present and in the past, in a growing and interdisciplinary field. While the main goal has been to measure culture in an innovative way, it has evolved differently among the wide range of disciplines that study the human condition and at various university departments all over the world. This paper contributes to a better understanding of the potentials and pitfalls of using machine learning and artificial intelligence in the humanities and applies data science and digital tools to the study of translated literature and global translation flows. Specifically, it examines the opportunities and pitfalls of computationally analyzing large cultural data sets and describes how we can combine quantification, the statistical study of literary translations in an historical period, and data visualization on a large scale with qualitative methods. A general hypothesis is that one of the main possibilities offered by a Big Translation History approach (BTH) is to help decentralize translation and world literature, in a broad sense, by breaking with national historiographies. This might be particularly significant for researchers working on periods in which borders have changed, those dealing with translated literature in the diaspora, and those working on translations of regional literatures. This paper defines BTH as a conceptual and methodological tool that can be grounded on three fundamentals: (1) large scale research (geographical and chronological); (2) massive data, understood using a two-pronged approach involving both big data and little data, and drawing on a wide range of often heterogeneous and non-structured sources; and (3) the use of computational techniques as part of the research process and for the production of knowledge, rather than helping only with visualization.

  • Justification as Ignorance. An Essay in Epistemology (2021)

    Rosenkranz, Sven (UB)

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    Justification as Ignorance. An Essay in Epistemology

    Epistemic justification is justification to take the world to be a certain way. If one knows the world to be a certain way, one has justification for taking it to be that way. But, arguably, one may have such justification without knowing, and be justified in taking the world to be a certain way, although the world is not in fact that way: unlike knowledge, epistemic justification is non-factive. While one is not always in a position to know that one has knowledge if one does, one is arguably always in a position to know that one has epistemic justification if one does: epistemic justification is luminous. Traditionally, these features have been assumed to require that justification be a condition internal to the subject’s mind that is knowable by reflection alone. Justification as Ignorance offers an original account of epistemic justification as both non-factive and luminous, thereby vindicating core internalist intuitions, without yet construing justification as an internal condition. Rosenkranz conceives of justification, in its doxastic and propositional varieties, as a kind of epistemic possibility of knowing and of being in a position to know. His account contrasts with recently proposed alternatives that characterize justification in terms of the metaphysical possibility of knowing. Based on a suitable epistemic logic for knowledge, and for being in a position to know, Rosenkranz defends his conception of justification against well-known anti-luminosity arguments, shows that the account allows for fruitful applications and novel principled solutions to the lottery and preface paradoxes, and provides a metaphysics of justification and its varying degrees of strength.

  • Breaking paradigms of enzyme action to fight plant pathogens (2021)

    Rovira Virgili, Carme (UB)

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    Breaking paradigms of enzyme action to fight plant pathogens

    When talking about glycosidases – the main enzymes responsible for degrading carbohydrates in Nature – one often refers to the “catalytic itinerary”. This is the set of chemical and structural modifications that a certain substrate (typically a carbohydrate molecule) undergoes while it is being cleaved by the enzyme (broken into pieces). One of the main features of the catalytic itinerary is the “shape” or conformation of the substrate, i.e. the so-called “conformational catalytic itinerary”.

    Until now, it was assumed that the conformational catalytic itinerary was unique for each glycosidase enzyme (and even for all members of the same family of enzymes).  By means of a multidisciplinary work involving protein crystallography and quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics simulations, we demonstrate that this paradigm breaks for certain enzymes acting on hemicellulose (a polysaccharide of plant cell walls). Exo-oligoxylanases from the pathogen Xanthomonas citri – classified in the family 43 of glycosidases - can cleave the terminal end of plant carbohydrates via two alternative catalytic itineraries.

    These results will serve to find ways to redesign glycosidase active sites (the region of the enzyme that binds and converts the substrate in a product), as well as designing inhibitor molecules that suppress the enzyme activity to fight the pathogen.

    The work is a collaboration between researchers from the Brazilian Biorenewables National Laboratory (Campinas, Brazil), led by Mario Murakami, and the group of Quantum Simulation of biological Processes of the Department of Chemistry of the University of Barcelona, led by Carme Rovira.

  • BioEngineering Hybrid Robotics across different length scales: from Nanobots to Biobots (2021)

    Sánchez Ordónez, Samuel (IBEC)

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    BioEngineering Hybrid Robotics across different length scales: from Nanobots to Biobots

    Our group has reported two unprecedented, bioengineered hybrid robots at different length scales, ranging from the nano- to the millimeter-scale, in the prestigious journal Science Robotics. Hybrid robots combine biological and artificial components in a single system.

    At the nanoscale, we demonstrated that nanoparticles coated with urease enzyme (so called nanobots) swim in urea solutions naturally present in the bladder of a mice. It is of extreme importance to track swarms of nanobots moving in vivo, since millions of them are required to treat specific cancer pathologies. To do so, we used of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) at CIC biomaGUNE, a high-sensitive non-invasive technique extensively used in the biomedical field. This technique allows the observation of radiolabelled nanobots in the bladder of mice like never before. Nanobots actively move in 3D, reaching the walls of bladder where tumors are typically located, something not achieved with passive nanoparticles or current treatments. This work constitutes a fundamental advance in the race of nanobots to become a key technological player in precision medicine.

    At a larger scale, we combined skeletal muscle cells and hydrogels using 3D printing for the development of living robots (biobots) swimming at extraordinary velocities. We took advantage of the spontaneous contraction of muscle cells to mechanically self-train them, becoming stronger muscle-based swimmers. We integrated a compliant skeleton with a serpentine spring shape, designed and optimized via simulations. This innovative scaffold provides mechanical self-stimulation, without the need of any external input obtaining a biobot which moves 791x faster than any reported skeletal muscle–based biobots. This research opens the door to a new generation of stronger and faster biological robots based on muscle cells not only for environmental, drug delivery and/or drug testing purposes, but also for the development of bionic prosthetics.

  • Hot spots? No, thank you! (2021)

    Sotomayor Torres, Clivia Marfa (ICN2)

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    Hot spots? No, thank you!

    Thermal transport by phonons is at the heart of materials research for energy harvesting applications, such as thermoelectricity, and thermal management in electronic and optoelectronic devices. The quest for more abundant and less toxic materials has turned to 2-dimensional (2D) materials and among them SnSe2 holds a promise with exceptional figures of merit ZT, eg., 2.95 at 800 K. To integrate thermoelectric generators in circuits, the challenge of controlling the heat directionality becomes increasingly important. Thus, the study of heat propagation in two-dimensional materials is highly relevant to assess their potential for applications that pose thermal management constraints. 

    We report a systematic study of the in-plane and cross-plane thermal conductivity of supported and suspended crystalline SnSe2 films of thickness from 16 to 190 nm, with state-of-the-art Raman thermometry and frequency domain thermoreflectance (see figure 1). The specific crystalline structure of materials determines their capacity of conducting heat along different directions, as in the case of SnSe2.

    This work revealed that the thermal conductivity anisotropy ratio of the in-plane and cross-plane conductivities, is almost a factor of 10 and is independent of the SnSe2 film thickness in the range studied. This means that heat tends to propagate faster along the in-plane direction than along the cross-plane one. Moreover, the in-plane thermal conductivity drops when the ambient temperature increases, but this temperature dependence is weaker for thinner films (see figure 2). A full explanation is provided in terms of the phonon mean free path distribution for different thickness values and  the role of surface phonon scattering. 

    This study yield useful information on heat transport in SnSe2, which can help design electronic lab-scale devices with improved thermal management when it is desirable to have heat dissipating mainly in one direction, while preserving thermal insulation in the other. This may be a way to avoid hot spots and improve device stability and performance.