Developers of AlphaFold get the $3 million Breakthrough Prize

Jenita Betsy
Sep 22, 2022

One of five winners of the most prestigious prizes in science is DeepMind's algorithm for predicting the 3D structure of proteins.

The creators of the artificial intelligence (AI) system AlphaFold have been awarded one of this year's $3 million Breakthrough Awards, which are the most valuable accolades in science. The tool that has predicted the 3D structures of practically every known protein on the world was developed by Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, both of DeepMind in London.

According to Mohammed AlQuraishi, a computational biologist at Columbia University in New York City, "few discoveries so profoundly affect a subject, so soon." The practise of structural biology has undergone significant changes, both computationally and experimentally.

The prize was one of five Breakthrough awards announced on September 22 for accomplishments in the life sciences, physics, and mathematics.

The success of DeepMind's AlphaGo served as the foundation for the award-winning AI AlphaFold. This was the AI that defeated Lee Sedol, a Go master, in Seoul in 2016. According to Hassabis, "it was the height of gaming AI, but that was never designed to be an aim in itself." I intended to create AI to hasten scientific advancement. The group focused on protein folding the day after departing from Seoul.

In November 2020, the system made headlines when it defeated about 100 other software programmes to win the biennial CASP challenge (Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction). In 2018, an earlier iteration of AlphaFold had won, but not by a wide margin, forcing the team to start over. Jumper explains that when using machine learning, it's important to strike the correct balance between the architecture, the limitations imposed by the known underlying science, and the data.

More than 500,000 researchers have used the machine-learning system since DeepMind launched an open-source version in July 2021, producing thousands of articles. 200 million protein structures predicted from amino-acid sequences were made available by DeepMind in July. To date, the data have been used to address issues including agricultural resilience and antibiotic resistance.

According to Christine Orengo, a computational biologist at University College London, "This is a big breakthrough, not just because they built the programme, but because they made it available and offered all those structures." She continues by saying that the accomplishment was made possible by the vast amount of protein sequence data amassed by the world's population.

When he found that he had received a Breakthrough prize, Hassabis says he was "stunned," while Jumper says he "could not believe it was for real." Hassabis intends to contribute a portion of his money to programmes that support schools in rural Nepal as well as efforts that promote educational initiatives focused at fostering diversity.

Cell systems and sleep science

additional life sciences For separately determining that narcolepsy is brought on by a lack of the brain chemical orexin, sleep researchers Masashi Yanagisawa of the University of Tsukuba in Japan and Emmanuel Mignot at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, were jointly given the breakthrough prize.

According to Birgitte Rahbek Kornum, a neurophysiologist at the University of Copenhagen, both scientists are "giants of the field" who made it possible to identify the illness with certainty.

This allowed patients to understand exactly what was wrong rather than being encouraged to "get a grip and remain up," she adds, adding that narcolepsy significantly lowers quality of life. The results have also influenced the creation of medication therapies that are currently undergoing clinical testing.

The award, according to Yanagisawa, has "truly honoured" him, and he intends to use the money to establish an endowment to support research. In Japan, he notes, "Stable funding for young scientists to conduct exploratory work is troublesome," adding that it was only feasible for him to make his own discovery because he was free to "go on a 'fishing trip' with no promise of success."

The discovery of a mechanism by which cell contents can organise themselves by segregating into droplets earned Clifford Brangwynne of Princeton University in New Jersey and Anthony Hyman of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, a third life sciences prize.

Quantum pioneers

Four pioneers in the field of quantum information—Peter Shor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, David Deutsch at the University of Oxford, UK, Charles Bennett at IBM in Yorktown, New York, and Gilles Brassard at the University of Montreal in Quebec—are sharing this year's Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Their work paved the way for the creation of extremely secure communications and computers that could one day perform some jobs better than conventional machines.

The news that I had won the prize "truly startled me," admits Shor. There has been a lot accomplished by others. Shor created the first quantum method that has the potential to be beneficial and could one day allow quantum computers to quickly decompose enormous numbers into their prime factors

This increases the likelihood of breaking the big prime number-based encryption codes that are used to safeguard a major portion of today's Internet traffic. Nikita Gourianov, a quantum physicist at the University of Oxford, argues that this significant achievement "confirmed that quantum computers were more than simply another academic curiosity."

Daniel Spielman, a mathematician at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, receives the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. Spielman won awards for a number of innovations, such as the creation of error-correcting codes that remove noise from high-definition television transmissions.

Russian-Israeli businessman Yuri Milner established the Breakthrough Prizes in 2012. Milner and other internet business owners, like Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, are now funding them (formerly Facebook).

  • DeepMind's AlphaGo
  • Christine Orengo
  • a computational biologist at University College London
  • cell systems and sleep science

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