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A year of research at the front page

A year of research at the front page

The cover of Nature or the study of one of the oldest paintings of humanity are some of the research studies published in 2021

During 2021, the task of the UB research staff has provided researches that involve important advances in several knowledge areas. Apart from being published in prestigious scientific journals, these researches have had a social and media impact. Here are some examples.

These studies, published in prestigious scientific journals, have had a social and media impact

Matters of the heart

“Matters of the heart” is the title of a paper that made an exceptional milestone: the journal Nature gave its cover to this research study, carried out exclusively by the Consolidated Research Group Evolution and Development (Evo-Devo) of the Section of Genetics of the Faculty of Biology of the UB. The study proposes a new evolutionary scenario that helps to better understand the evolution of our phylum —chordates— and to discover what the tunicates’ ancestors, the sister group of vertebrates, were like. Specifically, it reveals that the massive loss of genes that deconstructed the genic network of the heart eased the transition towards a free pelagic lifestyle in appendicularian tunicates from their ancestral sessile lifestyle. Two days after publishing the paper, UB lecturer David Bueno shared this information in the newspaper Ara with an article under the title “Vols evolucionar? Prova de desfer-te d’uns quants gens”, while the rector’s delegate for scientific dissemination, Gemma Marfany, published “L’encant d’un cor desconstruït” in El The research study had about forty impacts on printed and digital press, apart from information on the radio and television. An interview in the television programme Més 324 explained the process to reach this finding: “We were frustrated because we could not find the genes we were looking for —revealed Cristian Cañestro, principal researcher at the @EvoDevoGenomeUB Group— until we realized we couldn’t because they were not there. This was a surprise: we then changed our minds and asked ourselves whether losing genes is a way to evolve”, added the expert, lecturer from the Section of Genetics of the UB and member of the Biodiversity Research Institute (IRBio) of the UB. Both Cañestro and the UB vice-rector for Research, Jordi Garcia, explained on television the importance of basic research and the need for a better funding.

A painting from 65,000 years ago

This study focuses on the creation of the first symbols made by our ancestors, specifically the first paintings. An article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed the human origins of one of the oldest paintings in the planet, painted in Cueva de Ardales (Malaga, Spain). After its publication, the newspaper El Periódico stated that “humanity’s oldest ‘paintbrush’ was painted in Malaga”. The published information reflected the work by Àfrica Pitarch as the principal researcher of the project and João Zilhão as the supervisor, both from the Faculty of Geography and History and membres of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar of the UB (SERP-UB). According to the study, the Neandertals would have accessed on several occasions the cave to mark symbolically and repeatedly the stalagmitic formation in the middle of a room. The study contradicts the hypothesis that stated that the Ardales paintings were natural deposits and it confirms its human authorship.

Researches infographic

Research from diverse disciplines

“Los gorilas de montaña se comunican a ritmo de tambor” (mountain gorillas communicate to the rythm of drums). This is how National Geogrpahic titled an article about the research study published in Scientific Reports on the meaning of mountain gorillas’ chest beats. The study counted on the participation of the lecturer of the Faculty of Psychology, Jordi Galbany, who says the chest beats are “the climax of a demonstration” these animals make, especially in situations such as interaction with another group of gorillas. The study discovers a correlation between the body size of gorillas and the frequency of the characteristic sounds of the chest beats. Therefore, bigger and competitive males beat their chest with a lower frequency (that is, stronger sounds). According to the experts, this visual and acoustic signal indicates in a reliable way, the body size of gorillas to their social group —males and females—, and to other neighbouring groups of gorillas.

An article published in Nature Astronomy studied the Palomar 5 globular cluster, which has two special features. It is one of the “fluffiest” clusters in the Milky Way halo, with an average distance between stars being a few light-years, comparable to the distance from the Sun to the nearest star. Secondly, it has a specular stellar stream associated with it that spans more than 20 degrees across the sky. The study showed that these two distinctive features are probably the result of a population of more than a hundred blackholes in the center of the Palomar 5 cluster. This study is important to understand the formation of globular clusters, initial star masses and the evolution of massive stars. The journal Squire shared this cosmology study by Mark Gieles, researcher at the Institute of Cosmos Sciences of the University of Barcelona.

The environment is another focus of interest for research. This is the case of a published article in the journal Environmental Research Letters, signed by Miquel Canals, from the Faculty of Earth Sciences of the UB, and Georg Hanke, from the European Commission Joint Research Centre. The study synthetizes the current knowledge on the human-origin materials in the sea floors and analyses the methodologies to improve future studies. It states, for instance, that the Messina Strait in Italy, is the area with the largest marine litter density worldwide, with more than a million objects per square kilometer in some areas. The study warns that, over the next thirty years, the volume of rubbish in the sea could surpass three billion metric tons (Mt). Led by the University of Barcelona, this publication gathers the results of the scientific session on marine macrolitter that took place in May 2018, promoted by the European Commission Joint Research Centre and the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI).

Another study related to the ecology of the marine environment is the research on the Oceanic Posidonia, a plant with an important role as filter and trap for plastics thrown in the coastal areas. The study, published in Scientific Reports, is a pioneer one in the description of a natural mechanism to capture and remove these materials from the oceanic environment. The first author, lecturer Anna Sànchez-Vidal, member of the Research Group on Marine Geosciences of the Faculty of Earth Sciences, says that everything indicates that plastics get trapped in the Posidonia grasslands. In these meadows, plastics are incorporated to agglomerates of natural fiber with a ball shape —aegagropila or Posidonia Neptune balls— which are expulsed from the marine environment during storms.

In this context, it is noteworthy to say that in 2021, the University of Barcelona was once again the leading institution in Spain with the most researchers among the top influential ones worldwide, and it was listed as the second research centre in Spain after CSIC. This is stated in the Highly Cited Researchers ranking, published by Clarivate Analytics, which identifies those experts leading studies with the highest international scientific impact in several study areas.