The researchers behind the AlphaFold artificial intelligence (AI) system won one of this year’s US$3 million Breakthrough Prizes, the most lucrative prizes in science. Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, both of DeepMind in London, were credited for creating the tool that has predicted the 3D structures of nearly every known protein on the planet.
“Few discoveries alter a field so dramatically, so quickly,” says Mohammed AlQuraishi, a computational biologist at Columbia University in New York City. “It has really changed the practice of structural biology, both computational and experimental.”
The award was one of five Breakthrough Awards, given for achievement in life sciences, physics and mathematics, announced on September 22.
award winning AI
AlphaFold was born from the success of DeepMind’s AlphaGo. This was the AI that in 2016 beat Lee Sedol, a master of the Go strategy game, in Seoul. “That was the pinnacle of gaming AI, but it was never meant to be an end in itself,” says Hassabis. “I wanted to build AI to accelerate scientific discovery.” The day after returning from Seoul, the team turned their attention to protein folding.
The system created a stir in November 2020 by win the biennial CASP contest (Critical Evaluation of Structure Prediction), outperforming 100 other software programs. An older version of AlphaFold won in 2018, but not convincingly, forcing the team to go back to the drawing board. “With machine learning, it’s about finding the right balance between the architecture, the constraints imposed by known underlying science, and the data,” says Jumper.
Since DeepMind released an open source version of AlphaFold in July 2021, more than half a million researchers have used the machine learning system, generating thousands of articles. In July of this year, DeepMind released 200 million protein structures predicted from amino acid sequences. Until now, the data has been harnessed to address issues ranging from antibiotic resistance to crop resilience.
“This is a breakthrough, not only because they developed the algorithm, but because they made it available and provided all those structures,” says Christine Orengo, a computational biologist at University College London. She adds that the achievement was made possible by a large amount of protein sequence data collected by the global community.
Hassabis says he was “stunned” to learn he had won a Breakthrough Award, and Jumper says he “couldn’t believe he was serious.” Hassabi plans to donate part of his profits to educational programs aimed at increasing diversity and also to initiatives supporting schools in rural Nepal.
The science of sleep and cellular systems
Another groundbreaking award in life sciences was jointly awarded to sleep scientists Masashi Yanagisawa of the University of Tsukuba, Japan, and Emmanuel Mignot of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, for independently discovering that narcolepsy is caused by due to a deficiency of the brain chemical orexin.
Both researchers are “giants in the field” who made it possible to definitively diagnose the condition, says Birgitte Rahbek Kornum, a neurophysiologist at the University of Copenhagen. “Narcolepsy severely affects quality of life, and this allowed patients to know exactly what was wrong, rather than being told to ‘get a grip and stay awake,'” she says. The findings have also led to the development of drug treatments that are currently in clinical trials.
Yanagisawa says he is “deeply honored” by the award and plans to use the money to establish an endowment to fund research. “Stable support for young scientists to do exploration work in Japan is problematic,” he says, noting that his own discovery was possible only because he was free to “go on a ‘fishing expedition’ with no guarantee of success.” success”.
Clifford Brangwynne of Princeton University in New Jersey and Anthony Hyman of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, share a third life sciences prize for discovering a mechanism by which the contents of cells can organize themselves by segregating into droplets.
This year’s Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics is shared among four founders of the field of quantum information: Peter Shor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; David Deutsch of the University of Oxford, UK; Charles Bennett of IBM in Yorktown, New York; and Gilles Brassard at the University of Montreal in Quebec. His research laid the foundation for the development of ultra-secure computers and communications that could one day outperform standard machines at some tasks.
“I was very surprised to learn that I had been awarded the prize,” says Shor. “There are so many things that others have done.” In the 1990s, Shor developed the first potentially useful quantum algorithm, which could one day allow quantum computers to rapidly break down large numbers into their prime factors. This raises the possibility of crack encryption codes used to protect much of today’s internet traffic, which are based on large prime numbers. “This massive result showed that quantum computers were more than just an academic curiosity,” says Nikita Gourianov, a quantum physicist at the University of Oxford.
The Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics goes to Daniel Spielman, a mathematician at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Spielman was recognized for multiple breakthroughs, including the development of error-correcting codes to filter out noise in high-definition television broadcasts.
The Breakthrough Awards were founded in 2012 by Yuri Milner, a Russian-Israeli billionaire. They are now sponsored by Milner and other Internet entrepreneurs, including Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta (formerly Facebook).
This article is reproduced with permission and what first published on September 22, 2022.