Metallomics Themed Collection in Memory of Silvia Atrian

Metallomics has recently published a collection of articles dedicated to the memory of Silvia Atrian. Silvia made numerous valuable contributions to the scientific community. Her insightful work exploring the metal binding abilities of metallothioneins in many species, which lead to a new classification proposal aimed at understanding their functionality, has helped bring clarity to a complex set of questions. In addition to her work, she will be remembered by members of the community for her generosity of spirit and her willingness to work with and help others in the field.

Guest Edited by her long-time collaborator Mercè Capdevila, we hope that this collection of papers in Metallomics will be a fitting memorial to an inspiring mentor and outstanding scientist. You can access the full collection of articles at

The following blog post celebrates the life and work of Silvia Atrian and was written by Silvia’s friends and collaborators Mercè Capdevila and Òscar Palacios.

An Outstanding Scientific Career

Silvia Atrian was born in Barcelona (Catalunya, Spain) on the 6th January 1957 and left us on the 5th December 2016, just one month before her 60th birthday. As one of our most appreciated and long-lasting collaborators and friends said, “We would all have needed her great heart and her skills for much more time to come (R. Dallinger 05/12/2016)”.

Silvia was always an excellent student. She achieved her bachelor degree in Biology at the University of Barcelona (UB) in 1980 and received her PhD from the same university in 1984. Her academic and scientific life was always linked to the UB, where she was soon incorporated as a predoctoral fellow (Department of Genetics of the Faculty of Biology). After gaining her PhD, in 1984, she became assistant professor until 1986, when she was admitted to a position as Associate Professor. She held this position until 2003 when she won the University Professor’s Contest at the Department of Genetics Microbiology and Statistics at the Biology Faculty of the UB.

Her doctoral thesis, under the direction of Dr. Roser Gonzàlez-Duarte, was developed within the framework of what was then called Biochemical Genetics, and was centered on the study of the Drosophila alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). During her postdoctoral stage, she continued with the study of this same system at the gene level, contributing to the implementation of the techniques of molecular genetics and genetic engineering in her department. She subsequently carried out a postdoctoral stay at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland, U.K., 1988-1989), to introduce herself to molecular experimentation with yeasts, and the techniques of directed mutagenesis and heterologous protein expression. In 1990, back to Barcelona, she continued working with the Drosophila ADH system, which had become the model of the so-called “short chain alcohol dehydrogenases”. In collaboration with experts from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, she helped to solve its three-dimensional structure, and therefore to establish the bases of the structure/function relationship in this enzyme.

In 1991, she started working in a new line of research: “Metallothioneins, Metalloproteins and Metabolism of Metals”. After a few years she became exclusively involved in this research line, already as a principal researcher, and thus continued until the end of her life. This line is part of the study at a molecular level of the relationships between metals and living organisms. This is a new area of emerging research, conducted from an experience perspective in Molecular Genetics and Genetic Engineering, in which she worked in collaboration with an Inorganic Chemistry team of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), now directed by Dr. Mercè Capdevila. This discipline is known as “Molecular and Cellular Biology of Metals” in the field of Biology and “Bioinorganic Chemistry” in the field of Chemistry. The work she carried out focused from the first moment on the basic knowledge of Metallothioneins (MTs). The study of the structure-function relationship in MTs provides information on the interactions between proteins and metals, and allows the testing of systems of biotechnological applicability in two fundamental areas: environment and biomedicine.

Subsequently, her interests were extended to other topics, such as the metabolism of Zn and Cu, in yeast, or proteins related to the metabolism of Fe (Ferritins, Frataxins) and / or their relationship with MTs. The study of the “biology of metals” is currently entering into the integrative knowledge of all the elements (proteins) involved in this response, their interactions and their regulation.

Silvia Atrian devoted herself intensely to research and teaching, becoming involved in the implementation of subjects such as Molecular Genetics and Advanced Genetic Engineering, without forgetting her contribution to university management: she was Secretary of the Department of Genetics at the UB in two intervals, 1987 -1994 and 2000-2003, Computer Coordinator of the Department of Genetics at the UB since 1993, Member of the Research Commission of the Division III of the UB, as representative of the Department of Genetics (2000-2003), Coordinator of the Program of postgrade in Biotechnology and the Molecular Biotechnology Master’s Degree at the UB since 2005 and Vice-Rector for Innovation and Knowledge Transfer at the UB (2010-2012).

Throughout her career she participated in more than fifty public financing projects, in half of them as a principal researcher. The most recent was “Understanding of the molecular interactions between metals and biological systems for the design of biomedical and biotechnological applications. SP1-Biological Approach “, funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness in the National Biotechnology Program. She directed ten PhD theses and participated in a hundred publications in indexed journals, in almost two hundred communications to congresses and in three registered patents.

Her work and experience gathered in almost 30 years of research led her research team to be currently recognized internationally as one of the expert groups on the subject. She was acting as reviewer of the proposals of worldwide research projects, and of related articles in the most prestigious international journals. Silvia also participated as a member of international thesis tribunals, and established collaborations with world leaders in the field, and accepting stays in her laboratories from other national and international laboratories that requested her experience.


Tributes from Silvia’s Colleagues

  • “Motivation, scientific solidity, discretion, responsibility and coherence, are the most relevant features of her life and of all her professional activity. Silvia Atrian is an example of intense and honest dedication to science. Her career in teaching and research leaves a mark of quality, meticulousness, rigor and passion. All in all, a good professional model for present and future generations.” (AMIT, February 2017)
  • “Her insightful work exploring the metal binding abilities of metallothioneins in many species, which lead to a new classification proposal aimed at understanding their functionality, has helped bring clarity to a complex set of questions. The genetic framework she used to investigate metallothioneins produced many valuable papers. In addition to her work, she will be remembered by members of the community for her generosity of spirit and her willingness to work with and help others in the field.“ (Metallomics blog, 20th December 2016)
  • “She was such an energetic woman!” (Walter Shaffner 11/12/2016)
  • “Sincere, charismatic, optimistic, energetic, she knew how to make things happen. She gave me a confidence in myself that few people have been able to transmit.” (Gisela Mir 05/12/2016)
  • “I had the immense luck of meeting Silvia and her energy and dynamism always caught my attention. As a woman in the scientific world, Silvia is for me a role model.” (Olga Iranzo 05/12/2016)
  • “We will miss her execution and her ability to “draw water from stones.” I will always have with me her example of pragmatism and her ability to rescue something good from everything that surrounded her.” (Ayelen Pagani 07/12/2016)
  • “We will miss her enthusiasm and her great scientific competence. The world of metallothioneins has lost a great lady, a great scientist.” (Laurence Fraisinet-Tachet 06/12/2016)


Goodbye to Silvia Atrian

The collaboration of our research group with that lead by Silvia has always been very cordial, despite the differences in our academic formation and the ways to face scientific challenges. Together, and after a very difficult first stage, we have achieved a set of milestones within the field of MTs. These have led us to the place where we are now, and that have left a mark in the small world of MTs. Among these we can mention:

  1. The start-up in the 90s of the recombinant synthesis of MTs in their metallated forms (avoiding the tedious purification processes from native organisms)
  2. The discovery of the presence of additional ligands in the metal-MT clusters (sulfides and chlorides), which in some cases vary their coordinating capacities
  3. The proposal of a new classification of these metalloproteins as a gradation between genuine Cu- and Zn-thioneins
  4. The discovery of the role of the non-coordinating amino acids as the determinants of the metallic specificity of gastropoda MTs
  5. The publication of the first structure of a tridominial MT

Obviously, the merits mentioned above would not have been possible without a handful of collaborations established over the years and that have lasted, in many cases in the field of friendship, to the present. So we cannot forget the work and friendship time shared with (in some kind of chronological order):

  • Walter Schaffner (Zurich) with whom we came out of the study of mammalian MTs to enter into the study of Drosophila MTs
  • Marissa Molinas and Gisela Mir (Girona) with whom we discovered and studied Quercus suber MT and led to the discovery of the presence of sulfide anions in some MTs
  • Reinhard Dallinger (Innsbruck) with who we worked for many years, and still continue working, studying the MTs of snails, and who introduced us to Oliver Zerbe (Zurich) with whom we have managed to resolve and publish the structure of Littorina MT
  • Armida Torreggiani, Anna Tinti, Carla Ferreri and Chryssostomos Chatgilialoglu (Italy) with whom we explored the redox reactions in MTs and their Raman spectra
  • Claudia Blindauer (Warwick) who has been more than a collaborator and with whom we have shared several thesis courts and we continue working together
  • Carlos Andreo, Ayelen Pagani and Diego Gomez Casati (Argentina) with whom we entered into the world of soy and sunflower MTs and of Frataxins
  • Stephen Sturzenbaum (UK) expert on the Cahenorhabditis elegants MTs and also a good friend
  • Eva Freisinger (Zurich) with whom we share passion for MTs and congresses
  • Laurence Fraisinet-Tachet (France) with which we explored environmental MTs
  • Dennis Winge (USA) and all the friends made in the Copper Meetings: among them Pascale Delangle (France) and Juana Pérez and Jose Muñoz-Dorado (Granada) who have also contributed to this special number
  • Jose Manuel Domínguez Vera (Granada), with whom we explored the interactions of mammalian MTs with ferritin to discover some chemically and biologically harmless versus harmful ferritin/ metallothionein couples
  • Claudio Fernandez (Argentina) with whom we tried to find out how synuclein could interact with MTs
  • Juan Carlos Gutierrez (Madrid) with whom we explored the Tetrahymena MTs
  • Rachel Narehood Austin with whom we shared our interest for lead binding to mammalian MTs
  • Juan Hidalgo (Barcelona) with whom we entered into the role of mammalian MTs in the brain and shared many thesis courts
  • Magdalena Rowińska-Żyrek and Elzbieta Gumienna-Kontecka (Poland) for whom we feel a great appreciation
  • Dennis Thiele (USA), who opened the door to the study of pathogenic fungal MTs, who introduced us to Sergi Puig and Lola Peñarrubia (Valencia) and hosted Anna Esparto during his stay in Duke
  • Maria Jose Figueras and Javier Capilla (Tarragona) with whom learned a lot about fungal MTs
  • Clotilde Policar (France) with whom we shared nice moments and conversations
  • Jean Didier Maréchal (Barcelona) who took care of all the theoretical calculations and predictions when required
  • Olga Iranzo (France) who always showed her admiration for Silvia’s way of doing
  • Gabriele Meloni (USA) and Peter Faller (France), and his mentor Milan Vasak (Zurich), who have always valued our contributions to the field
  • Ricard Albalat (Barcelona) who has taken over the leadership of the research group that Silvia left, and opened the doors to the Oikopleura dioica MTs
  • And finally, all of her PhD students who once graduated have continued in contact with us. Some of those who continue devoting themselves to research have also wanted to contribute, and so we have the work of Anna Espart, Elena Jiménez-Martí and Mireia Tomás

Many of our present and past collaborators have accepted the invitation to be present in this special number dedicated to the memory of Silvia. Others have not been able to do it owing to several reasons (already retired, Metallomics being a journal that is out of their field of expertise, …). In this second case we have the contribution of Prof. Gutierrez, that although has been published in another journal, is dedicated to her memory, and those of all her colleagues from the Department of Genetics of the Universitat de Barcelona.
In any case, all we that had the opportunity of knowing her and loving her, we want to make patent that she will remain forever in our memory in the midst of good memories.

We hope that this collection of papers in Metallomics will be a fitting memorial to an inspiring mentor and outstanding scientist.

Mercè Capdevila & Òscar Palacios

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