Cada año, un comité de expertos debe acometer una ardua tarea: de entre todas las publicaciones de ICREA, debe escoger unas cuantas que destaquen del resto. Es todo un reto: a veces los debates se acaloran, y siempre son difíciles, pero acaba saliendo una lista con las mejors publicaciones del año. No se concede ningún premio, y el único reconocimiento adicional es el honor de ser resaltado en la web de ICREA. Cada publicación tiene algo especial, ya sea una solución especialmente elegante, un éxito espectacular en los medios de comunicación o la simple fascinación por una idea del todo nueva. Independientemente de la razón, se trata de los mejores de los mejores y, como tales, nos complace compartirlos aquí.


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  • Mapping the dark matter in the Universe     (2021)

    Miquel Pascual, Ramon (IFAE)

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    Mapping the dark matter in the Universe    

    There is overwhelming evidence that most of the matter in the Universe is in a "dark" form that neither emits nor blocks light, and is therefore invisible to even the largest telescopes. While the detailed nature of this "dark matter" remains a mystery, its gravitational interactions can be used to detect it and map it. Particularly relevant is the so-called "weak gravitational lensing" effect, in which the observed size, shape and orientation of distant galaxies are slightly distorted by the gravitational pull of the masses between them and us. Then, the statistical properties of a large set of images of distant galaxies can be studied to determine the location of the intervening (mostly dark) matter.

    The Dark Energy Survey (DES) is an international collaboration of 400 scientists from 25 institutions in 7 countries that has surveyed an eighth of the sky using DECam, a 570-megapixel camera installed at the Blanco 4-meter telescope in the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. The IFAE group led by Ramon Miquel was responsible for the design and production of most of the read-out electronics for the 74 CCDs in DECam.

    Using half of the final data sample, DES has measured the shapes of over 100 million distant galaxies, and, analyzing their statistical properties, has produced the largest mass map to date (figure). In it, one can observe how regions with more dark matter (yellow) contain numerous visible galaxy clusters (green circles), while regions with less dark matter (black) are also relatively empty of ordinary matter. This analysis was co-led by Marco Gatti, a PhD student at IFAE at the time (now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania).

    Studying the evolution in cosmic time of the clustering of matter, DES is also able to characterize the nature of the mysterious "dark energy," responsible for the current accelerated expansion of the Universe. The corresponding paper is currently under review in Physical Review D.

  • Coupling Metabolism and Differentiation to treat kidney disease (2021)

    Montserrat Pulido, Núria (IBEC)

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    Coupling Metabolism and Differentiation to treat kidney disease

    Chronic kidney disease affects more than 697 million people around the world. In total, it is estimated that 1.2 million people die each year due to this disease, which represents almost 5% of all annual deaths worldwide. Despite the enormous financial and personal burden that this entails, until now the biological mechanisms behind this condition were unknown, due to the structural and functional complexity of the kidney. 

    This study has uncovered that genes controlling lipid metabolism are switched off when the kidney is chronically damaged. Indeed, the loss of the healthy “signature” in the cells of the proximal tubule is related to estrogen related receptor alpha (ESRRa). To prove on the importance of the role of ESRRa we generated mini-kidneys and showed that when ESRRa was switched back on, the cells of the proximal tubuli of the kidney regain their function. Such observations occurred also in two animal models of chronic kidney damage from our collaborators in the study (University of Pennsylvania).

  • Fossil Apes and Human Evolution (2021)

    Moyà Solà, Salvador (ICP)

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    Fossil Apes and Human Evolution

    Ever since Charles Darwin, the idea that humans originated in Africa from an ape ancestor was hotly debated, but progressively gained support. The British naturalist, however, was unable to determine the kinship between humans and modern hominoid primates (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gibbons). Recent molecular studies, however, have determined that humans and chimps share a common ancestor (LCA) that lived during the Upper Miocene, between 9 and 7 million years ago, a fact that is frequently interpreted as evidence that it was chimp-like. This idea has dominated discussions of human ancestry for decades, and consequently, the more primitive Miocene apes were excluded as potential candidates. There are two major points of view in assessing the role of the ape fossil record in our evolutionary history. One rejects the idea that they are relevant in the debate over the origins of humans, while others think they play a crucial role. The fact that today's hominoids are just the survivors of terminal specialized branches of a group that was much larger and more diverse in the past, provides little evidence for the evolutionary history of human ancestors. It is exactly for this reason that the study of Miocene apes is required.


    The inclusion of Miocene apes in the analysis sheds a new perspective on the reconstruction of the LCA of humans and chimps. The fossil record clearly indicates that living hominoids constitute a narrow representation of an ancient radiation of more widely distributed, diverse taxa, none of which exhibits the entire suite of locomotor adaptations present in their extant relatives. Introducing Miocene apes into the equation allows us to understand that some modern ape similarities might have evolved in parallel in response to similar selection pressures. Early hominins originated in Africa from a Miocene LCA that does not match any living ape. Despite phylogenetic uncertainties, fossil apes remain key to reconstructing the "starting point" from which humans and chimps diverged. Future research should focus on fieldwork in new areas and methodological advances in morphology-based phylogenetics and paleoproteomics.

  • 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.