Some scientists spend their lives trying to pinpoint the shape of tiny proteins in the human body.
Proteins are the microscopic mechanisms that drive the behavior of viruses, bacteria, the human body and all living things. They begin as strings of chemical compounds before twisting and folding into three-dimensional shapes that define what they can do — and what they cannot.
For biologists, identifying the specific shape of a protein often requires months, years or decades of experimentation. Sometimes they never succeed. Now, an artificial intelligence lab in London has built a computer system that can do the job in a few hours — perhaps minutes.
DeepMind, a lab owned by the same parent company as Google, said its system, called AlphaFold, had solved what is known as “the protein folding problem.” Given the string of amino acids that make up a protein, the system can rapidly and reliably predict its three-dimensional shape.
This breakthrough could accelerate the ability to understand diseases, develop new medicines and unlock mysteries of the human body.
Computer scientists have struggled to build such a system for more than 50 years. DeepMind reached an accuracy level that rivaled physical experiments. “I always hoped I would live to see this day,” said John Moult, a professor at the University of Maryland who helped create CASP in 1994.
If DeepMind can be refined, he said, they could speed the development of drugs as well as efforts to apply existing medications. Researchers believe DeepMind’s methods also could accelerate the response to future pandemics. Some believe it could help scientists gain a better understanding of genetic diseases along the lines of Alzheimer’s or cystic fibrosis.
Still, experts cautioned that the technology would affect only a small part of the process by which scientists identify new medicines and analyze disease.