How AI revolutionized protein science, but didn’t end it

How AI revolutionized protein science, but didn’t end it

Yasemin Saplakoglu writes:

In December 2020, when pandemic lockdowns made in-person meetings impossible, hundreds of computational scientists gathered in front of their screens to watch a new era of science unfold.

They were assembled for a conference, a friendly competition some of them had attended in person for almost three decades where they could all get together and obsess over the same question. Known as the protein folding problem, it was simple to state: Could they accurately predict the three-dimensional shape of a protein molecule from the barest of information — its one-dimensional molecular code? Proteins keep our cells and bodies alive and running. Because the shape of a protein determines its behavior, successfully solving this problem would have profound implications for our understanding of diseases, production of new medicines and insight into how life works.

At the conference, held every other year, the scientists put their latest protein-folding tools to the test. But a solution always loomed beyond reach. Some of them had spent their entire careers trying to get just incrementally better at such predictions. These competitions were marked by baby steps, and the researchers had little reason to think that 2020 would be any different.

They were wrong about that.

That week, a relative newcomer to the protein science community named John Jumper had presented a new artificial intelligence tool, AlphaFold2, which had emerged from the offices of Google DeepMind, the tech company’s artificial intelligence arm in London. Over Zoom, he presented data showing that AlphaFold2’s predictive models of 3D protein structures were over 90% accurate — five times better than those of its closest competitor.

In an instant, the protein folding problem had gone from impossible to painless. The success of artificial intelligence where the human mind had floundered rocked the community of biologists. “I was in shock,” said Mohammed AlQuraishi, a systems biologist at Columbia University’s Program for Mathematical Genomics, who attended the meeting. “A lot of people were in denial.” [Continue reading…]

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