The researchers behind the AlphaFold artificial-intelligence (AI) system have won one of this year’s US$3-million Breakthrough prizes–the most lucrative awards in science. John Jumper and Demis Hassabis, both from DeepMind in London were honored for their creation of the tool that predicted the 3D structures almost all known proteins on the planet.
” Few discoveries have so dramatically altered a field so quickly,” says Mohammed AlQuraishi (a computational biologist at Columbia University, New York City). It has really changed the practice and theory of structural biology, both experimental and computational .”
The award was one of five Breakthrough prizes–awarded for achievements in life sciences, physics and mathematics–announced on 22 September.
AlphaFold was created from the success of DeepMind’s AlphaGo. This was the AI that in 2016 beat Lee Sedol, a master of the strategy game Go, in Seoul. Hassabis says, “That was the pinnacle in gaming AI, but that wasn’t meant to be an end itself.” “I wanted to build AI in order to accelerate scientific discovery.” After returning from Seoul, the team focused its attention on protein folding.
The system created a stir in November 2020 by winning the biennial CASP contest (Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction), beating around 100 other software programs. An earlier version of AlphaFold had won in 2018, but not convincingly, forcing the team back to the drawing board. Jumper says that machine learning is about finding the right balance between the structure and the constraints imposed by the underlying science and the data.
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 papers. In July this year, DeepMind released 200 million protein structures predicted from amino-acid sequences. The data have been used to address problems such as crop resilience and antibiotic resistance.
” This is a major breakthrough not only because they developed it, but also because they made it accessible and provided all the structures,” says Christine Orengo (a computational biologist at University College London). She also said that the achievement was possible because of the wealth of protein sequence data collected by the global community.
Hassabis said that he was shocked to hear that he had won the Breakthrough prize. Jumper said that he could not believe it was real. Hassabis will donate some of his winnings for educational programmes that aim to increase diversity and support schools in rural Nepal.
Sleep science, cellular systems
Another Life-Sciences Breakthrough Prize was awarded jointly to Masashi Yanagisawa, University of Tsukuba in Japan, and Emmanuel Mignot, Stanford University in Palo Alto (California), for independently discovering that narcolepsy can be caused by a lack of the brain chemical Orexin.
Both researchers are “giants of their field” who allowed the condition to be diagnosed definitively, according to Birgitte Rahbek Cornum, a neurophysiologist from the University of Copenhagen. “Narcolepsy is a serious condition that can severely impact quality of life. This allowed patients to know exactly what was wrong and not be told to “get a grip and keep awake,” she said. These findings led to the development and testing of drug treatments, which are currently in clinical trials.
Yanagisawa said he is “deeply honored” by the prize. He plans to use the money for research endowments. “Stable support for young scientists in Japan to do exploratory work is problematic,” Yanagisawa says, noting that his discovery was possible because he was able to “go on an ‘expedition’ without any guarantee of success.
Clifford Brangwynne from Princeton University in New Jersey and Anthony Hyman from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology Genetics in Dresden, Germany share a third prize in life sciences for discovering a mechanism that allows cell contents to organize themselves by segregating into droplets.
This year’s Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics is shared by four quantum information pioneers: Peter Shor, David Deutsch, Charles Bennett, IBM in Yorktown (New York), and Gilles Brassard, University of Montreal, Quebec. Their research laid the foundation for ultra-secure communications, computers that could one day surpass standard machines in certain tasks, and the development of ultrasecure communications.
” I was surprised to hear that I had been awarded the prize,” Shor says. “There is so much that others have done.” In the 1990s, Shor developed the first potentially useful quantum algorithm, which could one day enable quantum computers to speedily break large numbers down into their prime factors. This opens up the possibility of cracking encryption code to protect much of today’s Internet traffic , that is based on large prime number. Nikita Gourianov (University of Oxford quantum physicist) said that this massive result proved quantum computers were more than an academic curiosity.
The Breakthrough Prize for Mathematics goes to Daniel Spielman. He is a Yale University mathematician from New Haven, Connecticut. Spielman was honored for many achievements, including the development error-correcting codes that filter out noise from high-definition television broadcasts.
The Breakthrough prizes were founded in 2012 by Yuri Milner, a Russian-Israeli billionaire. Milner and other Internet entrepreneurs including Mark Zuckerberg (formerly Facebook) sponsor them.
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on September 22 2022.