Men and dogs in prehistoric times

Evolutionary biology aims at studying the processes and mechanisms generating biodiversity, based on the understanding of the genetic basis of the difference among species (divergence) as well as within every species (variation, polymorphism). Recently, researchers of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (CSIC-Universitat Pompeu Fabra) participated in two interesting studies that tell us stories about men and dogs in prehistory.

The first study, directed by Carles Lalueza-Fox and published in Nature, is a genomic study of a man who lived in León 7.000 years ago. One of the most astonishing results is that he had dark skin, darker than present Europeans, but his eyes were blue, indicative of a nord-european phenotype. It was thought that white skin was related to the latitude and less insolation of European countries compared with Africa. However, the hominid studied had dark skin, despite his ancestors had lived in Europe for thousands of years. The results of this study suggest that changes in skin pigmentation may not be related to latitude but to diet. Thus, in the Neolithic men ate less meat and therefore the intake of vitamin D was reduced. In this context, having a clear skin is an advantage because it allows vitamin D synthesis under sunlight influence.

The second study refers to the relationship between men and domestic dogs. In the study participated several research groups from USA, China and several European countries, including researchers of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology Belén Lorente-Galdós, Óscar Ramírez and Tomás Marquès-Bonet. To identify genetic changes underlying dog domestication and reconstruct their early evolutionary history, the researchers generated high-quality genome sequences from three gray wolves, one from each of the three putative centers of dog domestication, two basal dog lineages (Basenji and Dingo) and a golden jackal as an outgroup. Analysis of these sequences supports a demographic model in which dogs and wolves diverged through a dynamic process involving population bottlenecks in both lineages and post-divergence gene flow. In dogs, the domestication bottleneck involved at least a 16-fold reduction in population size, a much more severe bottleneck than estimated previously. The study narrowed the plausible range for the date of initial dog domestication to an interval spanning 11–16 thousand years ago, predating the rise of agriculture. This suggests that the earliest dogs arose alongside hunter-gathers rather than agriculturists.


IDIBELL researchers discover a lesion in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients that can aid to its treatment

Manel Esteller, Director of Epigenetics and Cancer Biology , Institute of Biomedical Research of Bellvitge (IDIBELL), with the collaboration of  the Institute of Neuropathology IDIBELL led by Isidre Ferrer, have demonstrated for the first time the existence of an epigenetic lesion in the hippocampus of the brain of patients with Alzheimer. The study has been published in the prestigious international journal “Hippocampus”.


Pathologically, Alzheimer ‘s disease is characterized by the accumulation of protein deposits in the brain of patients. These deposits are formed by plates of a protein amyloid-beta and protein tau that when phosphorylated  folds as tangles. The root cause of these lesions in most cases is unknown, but specific alterations in regulating genes expression might be involved. So far very few mutations associated with the disease have been reported, and never one that was common to all patients.



“We first started studying 30,000 molecular switches that turn on and off genes in the hippocampal region in the brains of Alzheimer patients in different stages of disease and compared with that of healthy patients of the same age. We note that DUSP22 gene switches off (methylates) as the disease advances” explained Manel Esteller, director of the study.


“But more importantly” continues “was the discovery that this gene regulates tau protein. Perhaps therefore the accumulation of tau protein produced in the brain of patients with Alzheimer results from DUSP22 epigenetic inactivation”. DUSP22 is a dual-specific phosphatase that inhibits PKA and thereby determines tau phosphorylation status.


According Esteller “the finding is relevant not only to determine the causes of the disease, but also to test potential treatments in the future to act on these epigenetic molecular switches”. Currently there is no effective drug treatment for this neurodegenerative condition, existing drugs only slow the progress of the disease.


IDIBELL is a foundation created in 2004 from the merger of several research entities. The centre manages the research of the Bellvitge University Hospital, the Institut Català d’Oncologia (Catalan Institute of Oncology) and the University of Barcelona.



UdL produces pork meat with less saturated fat

Researchers from Lleida University (UdL) obtained pork meat with a lower proportion of saturated fat and a higher content in monounsaturated fatty acids. This meat is healthier, but it has also better organoleptic properties. Researchers from the School of Agrifood and Forestry Science and Engineering (ETSEA) identified a genetic variant in the promoter of the stearoyl-CoA desaturase gene, responsible for the conversion of stearic acid, a saturated fatty acid, into oleic acid, a monounsaturated one. The presence of this variant in the promoter enhances the fat desaturation activity of the enzyme. This also increases the levels of palmitoleic acid in intramuscular fat.

The use of this genetic variant in commercial genetic improvement programmes is under a protection process. At present, these results have been published in the open access journal Plos One.

The Unit of Pig Genetic Improvement of ETSEA has been working for 12 years in the improvement of Duroc pork meat, which is characterized by a high degree of fat infiltration. For this reason, Duroc pork meat is very appreciated to elaborate high quality cured products. The effect of the reported genetic variant has been observed in pigs from all controlled generations since 2001, even when they were bred in different farms or fed different diets.


Official opening of the new ICN2 building in Bellaterra

The Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) inaugurated last Monday its new headquarters in the Bellaterra campus of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. The Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) is a private foundation with the objective of becoming a world-renowned centre for nanoscience and nanotechnology research. Its patrons are the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), the Government of Catalonia and the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). It is part of CERCA, the network of Research Centres launched by the Catalan Government as a cornerstone of its long-term strategy to foster development of a knowledge-based economy. The inauguration was officiated by the Minister for Economy and Knowledge of the Generalitat of Catalunya and President of the Board of Patrons of ICN2, Andreu Mas-Colell, the Secretary of State for Research, Development and Innovation, Carmen Vela, The President of CSIC, Emilio Lora-Tamayo, the Rector of the UAB, Ferran Sancho, the Secretary of Universities and Research of the Generalitat, Antoni Castellà, the Director General of Research of the Generalitat, Josep M. Martorell, the Institutional Coordinator of CSIC in Catalonia, Luís Calvo, and the Director of ICN2, Pablo Ordejón, and was well attended by other senior members of the scientific community.

The research activities of the Institute are focused on understanding the fundamental physical phenomena associated with state variables of matter and to investigate new properties that can be obtained by the creation of tailor-made nanostructures. The researchers at the Institute also work with new methods of fabricating at the nanoscale and the characterisation and manipulation of nanostructures, as well as the development of nanodevices and nanosensors for application in fields as diverse as health, food, environment, energy and electronics.


Angel Raya, the new director of the Barcelona Center of Regenerative Medicine

As we explained in a previous research new, Dr.  Juan Carlos Izpisúa left the management of the Barcelona Center of Regenerative Medicine  (CMRB), and the new director will be Dr. Angel Raya, a former post-doc of Dr. Izpisúa. Given the importance of CMRB in the current context of research in Catalonia, the bet for a person at charge of this center is not an easy task.

Dr. Angel Raya Chamorro was born in Argamasilla de Calatrava (Puertollano, Ciudad Real). He graduated (1990) and did his PhD (1995) at the University of Valencia. Then enjoyed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Cytological Research of Valencia (Príncipe Felipe Research Centre), and in 2000 began a postdoc in the lab of gene expression of Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. There he worked under Dr. Izpisúa’s supervision, with whom he has shared much of his research ever since. In 2006 he joined ICREA at the CMRB, leading the CIBER group Bioengineering, Biomaterials and Nanomedicine. Already in 2009, he joined Bioengineyeria Institute of Catalonia (IBEC), which until now has assumed leadership of the “Control of Stem Cell Potency” group.

He is currently the Main Investigator of the following research areas: heart regeneration in the zebrafish, Mechanisms of induced reprogramming to pluripotency and bioengineering approach to heart muscle differentiation the differentiation of myocardic cells.

Raya’s work aims to understand the tissue, the cellular and molecular mechanisms that determine the regenerative response in certain species of vertebrates, as well as genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that control cellular reprogramming. This provides a link between the traditional study of epimorphic regeneration and induced pluripotent strategies of regenerative medicine. His research was therefore focused to biomedical applications of induced pluripotent stem cells. In this way, he has currently obtained funds from four sources: the John Hopkins Institute, the Basque Foundation for Health Research and Innovation, the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and the Institute of Health Carlos III. With these grants, Dr. Raya wants to continue his research on specific applications, like neurofibromatosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiomyopathy and hemophilia.

Additionally, he has contributed to a great number of publications in several scientific journals. Some to be mentioned: Stem Cells, EMBO, Nature, Nature Genetics, Nature Protocols and Nature Biotechnology.

We are proud to have such a distinguished figure leading one of our best research institutions, and so we appreciate their commitment to the responsibility that entails. We honestly wish him all the success in his new workplace at the CMRB.

“The continuation of Ángel’s research line at IBEC, linked to the biomaterials and cell engineering activities, while he takes up his directorate duties at CMRB offers stability to the Catalan and Spanish research system, and will allow the consolidation of the research programme in regenerative medicine that it has been developing in recent years in different research centres,” says Josep Samitier, Director of IBEC.


Catalan researchers amongst the authors of a study on a hereditary type of cancer

Gabriel Capellá and Marta Pineda, from the Hereditary Cancer Programme of Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO-IDIBELL) are amongst the authors of an International study on hereditary sequence variants related to Lynch syndrome.

Lynch syndrome, often called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), is an inherited disorder that increases the risk of many types of cancer, particularly cancers of the colon and endometrium, being responsible of 2-5% of cases. This study, published in Nature Genetics, focused in the genetic causes of Lynch’s syndrome. Researchers compiled data on thousands of genetic variants that could be associated to Lynch syndrome. Finally, they developed a classification scheme to a number of unknown variants in this syndrome. This will facilitate the consistent management of families suspected to have Lynch syndrome.  


Science in Catalan

Catalan language in scientific publications is almost non-existent, as in most cases researchers write in English and publish in scientific journals written in this Language. As David Jou says in its article «Science in Catalan: a perspective», 85% of scientific papers are published in English. However, in some areas, such as botany, geology, zoology ecology and marine sciences, the use of Catalan as a scientific language has been more intense. We cannot forget scientific works from pre-and post-graduate students, as well as doctoral theses written in Catalan, which are fairly numerous despite they are conditioned by the composition of the committees.

However, when we try to write science in Catalan with high quality, we frequently have terminological doubts. The task of TERMCAT is key to solve these doubts. TERMCAT is a consortium of the Catalan Studies Institute and the Government of Catalonia, which elaborates terminological dictionaries, offers terminology resources and provides advice to write dictionaries and textbooks.

A recent initiative is a webpage elaborated by the Language Services of the University of Barcelona (UB) with the support of the commission of language policy of the School of Pharmacy. This webpage, termed «Rebotiga lingüística de farmàcia» (which could be translated as linguistic back room of pharmacy), aims to improve the quality of texts written in Catalan in the area of Pharmacy, and is specially addressed to students who must deliver written or oral works belonging to this academic ambit.

It is organized in several parts which are named using pharmaceutical terms such as «generic» (links to resources elaborated by the Language Services of the UB through webpage Vocabulària), «active ingredients» (about diverse text styles used in the academic domain), «magistral formulae» (brief comments on controversial points), «concordia» (resources such as on-line TERMCAT dictionaries), and «excipients» (links to similar webpages of other related faculties).

Initiatives such as this undoubtedly facilitate the use of Catalan in science.  To quote David Jou, science is a very efficient means to consolidate the international prestige of Catalan language.