AlphaFold Developers Wins US$3 Million Breakthrough Prize

Portraits of Demis Hassabis and John Jumper.

DeepMind’s Demis Hasabis (left) and John Jumper (right) developed AlphaFold, an AI that can predict the structure of proteins.credit: Breakthrough Prize

The researchers behind the AlphaFold artificial-intelligence (AI) system have won one of this year’s US$3 million Breakthrough Prizes – the most lucrative prize in science. Demis Hassabis and John Jumper at DeepMind in London, both recognized for building the tool that has predicted the 3D structures of nearly every known protein on the planet.

“Few discoveries change a field so dramatically so quickly,” says Mohamed Al Qureshi, a computational biologist at Columbia University in New York City. “It really changed the practice of structural biology, both computational and experimental.”

The award was one of five pivotal awards – awarded for achievements in the life sciences, physics and mathematics – announced on 22 September.

award winning AI

AlphaFold was seeded by the success of DeepMind’s AlphaGo. It was the AI ​​that defeated Lee Sedol, the master of strategy game Go, in Seoul in 2016. “It was the pinnacle of gaming AI, but it should never have been an end in itself,” Hassabis says. “I wanted to build AI to accelerate scientific discovery.” A day after returning from Seoul, the team turned its attention to protein folding.

The system rocked in November 2020 Winning the Biennial CASP Competition (Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction), outperforming about 100 other software programs. An earlier version of AlphaFold had won in 2018, but certainly not, forcing the team to return to the drawing board. “With machine learning, it’s about finding the right balance between architecture — the constraints imposed by the known underlying science — and data,” Jumper says.

Since DeepMind released an open-source version of AlphaFold in July 20211More than half a million researchers have used machine-learning systems, producing thousands of papers. In July this year, DeepMind released 200 million protein structures estimated from amino-acid sequences, So far, the data has been used to tackle problems ranging from antibiotic resistance to crop resilience.

“It’s a huge 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 this achievement has been made possible by the wealth of protein sequence data collected by the global community.

Hassabis says he was “stunned” to learn that he had won a Breakthrough Prize, and Jumper says he “couldn’t believe it was real”. The Hasbees plans to donate some of their winnings to educational programs aimed at increasing diversity, and also to initiatives to support schools in rural Nepal.

sleep science and cellular systems

Another life-science breakthrough award was jointly awarded to sleep scientists Masashi Yanagisawa at the University of Tsukuba, Japan, and Emmanuel Mignot at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, for independently discovering that narcolepsy is caused by a deficiency of the brain chemical orexin. it happens.

Both researchers are “legends of the field,” says Birgit Rahbek Kornum, a neurophysiologist at the University of Copenhagen who has been able to definitively diagnose the condition. “Narcolepsy severely affects quality of life, and this allows patients to know exactly what is wrong, rather than ‘catch up 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 set up an endowment to fund the research. “The steady support for young scientists to undertake exploratory work in Japan is problematic,” he says, noting that his own discovery was only possible because he “goes on ‘fishing expeditions’ without guarantees of success.” were free”.

A third life-sciences prize is shared by Clifford Brangwyn at Princeton University in New Jersey and Anthony Hyman at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, for discovering a mechanism by which Cell material can organize itself by separating into droplets,

quantum pioneer

This year’s Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was shared between four founders of the field of quantum information: Peter Shore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; David Dictionary at the University of Oxford, UK; Charles Bennett at 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 communications and computers that may one day outperform standard machines at certain tasks.

“I was very surprised to learn that I have been honored with the award,” says Shor. “There’s a lot that others have done.” In the 1990s, Shor developed the first potentially useful quantum algorithm, which could one day enable quantum computers to rapidly break down a large number of prime factors into their own.2, it increases the chances Cracking the encryption code used to secure most of today’s Internet traffic, which are based on large prime numbers. “This large-scale result proved that quantum computers were not more than just another academic curiosity,” says Nikita Gaurianov, a quantum physicist at the University of Oxford.

The Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics goes to mathematician Daniel Spielman of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Spielman was recognized for a number of advances, including the development of error-correction codes to filter 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, chief executive of Meta (formerly Facebook).

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