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. Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, both of DeepMind in London, have been credited with creating the tool that predicted the 3D structures of nearly every known protein on the planet.
“Few discoveries change a field so drastically, so quickly,” says Mohammed AlQuraishi, a computational biologist at Columbia University in New York. “It really changed the practice of structural biology, both computational and experimental.”
The prize was one of five Breakthrough Prizes – awarded for achievement in the life sciences, physics and mathematics – announced on September 22.
AlphaFold was born out of the success of DeepMind’s AlphaGo. It was the AI that beat Lee Sedol, a master of the strategy game Go, in Seoul in 2016. “It was the pinnacle of gaming AI, but it was never meant to be an end in itself,” Hassabis says. “I wanted to build AI to accelerate scientific discovery.” The day after returning from Seoul, the team turned to protein folding.
The system caused a stir in November 2020 when it won the biannual CASP (Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction) competition, beating around 100 other software. An earlier version of AlphaFold won in 2018, but not convincingly, forcing the team back to the drawing board. “With machine learning, it’s about finding the right balance between the architecture — the constraints imposed by the known underlying science — and the data,” says Jumper.
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Since DeepMind released an open source version of AlphaFold in July 20211, more than half a million researchers have used the machine learning system, generating thousands of papers. In July this year, DeepMind published 200 million predicted protein structures from amino acid sequences. So far, the data has been used to solve problems ranging from antibiotic resistance to crop resilience.
“This is a major breakthrough, not just because they developed the algorithm, but because they made it available and provided all these structures,” says Christine Orengo, a computational biologist at the University College London. She adds that this achievement was made possible by a wealth 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 it was for real.” Hassabis plans to donate a portion of her winnings to educational programs aimed at increasing diversity, as well as initiatives supporting schools in rural Nepal.
Sleep Sciences and Cellular Systems
Another Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize was awarded jointly to sleep scientists Masashi Yanagisawa of the University of Tsukuba, Japan, and Emmanuel Mignot of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, for discovering independently that narcolepsy is caused by a deficiency of the brain chemical orexin.
The two researchers are “giants of the field” who have made it possible to definitively diagnose the disease, explains Birgitte Rahbek Kornum, a neurophysiologist at the University of Copenhagen. “Narcolepsy seriously affects quality of life, and it allowed patients to know exactly what was wrong, instead of being told to ‘pull yourself together and stay awake,'” she says. The findings have also led to the development of drug treatments currently undergoing clinical trials.
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Yanagisawa says he is “deeply honored” by the award and plans to use the money to create an endowment to fund research. “Stable support for young scientists to carry out exploration work in Japan is problematic,” he says, noting that his own discovery was only possible because he was “free to go on a ‘fishing expedition’. without guarantee of success”.
A third prize in life sciences is shared by 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, for discovering a mechanism whereby cell contents can organize themselves by separating into droplets.
This year, the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics is shared between four founders of the field of quantum information: Peter Shor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; David Deutsch of Oxford University, UK; Charles Bennett at IBM in Yorktown, New York; and Gilles Brassard from the University of Montreal in Quebec. Their research laid the foundation for the development of ultra-secure communications and computers that could one day outperform standard machines in certain tasks.
“I was really surprised to learn that I received the award,” says Shor. “There are so many things other people have done.” In the 1990s, Shor developed the first potentially useful quantum algorithm, which could one day allow quantum computers to quickly break down large numbers into their prime factors.2. This raises the possibility of cracking the encryption codes used to secure much of today’s Internet traffic, which are based on large prime numbers. “This massive result proved 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 is awarded to Daniel Spielman, a mathematician at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Spielman has been recognized for his multiple advancements, 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, the chief executive of Meta (formerly Facebook).