• Otávio Santiago

‘New era in digital biology’: AI reveals structures of nearly all known proteins

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, the artificial intelligence (AI) company DeepMind stunned many scientists with the release of predicted structures for some 350,000 proteins, part of the work recognized as Science’s 2021 Breakthrough of the Year. Yesterday, DeepMind and its partners went much, much further. The company unveiled the likely structures of nearly all known proteins, more than 200 million from bacteria to humans, a striking achievement for AI and a potential treasure trove for drug development and evolutionary studies.

“We’re releasing now the structures for the whole protein universe,” said Dennis Hassabis, founder and CEO of DeepMind, at a press conference in London.

The structural bounty comes from AlphaFold, one of the new AI programs that have cracked the protein-folding problem, the long-standing challenge of accurately deriving the 3D shapes of proteins from their amino acid sequences.

AlphaFold’s newly predicted structures were released yesterday into an existing database through a partnership with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). The database “has provided structural biologists with this powerful new tool where you can look up the 3D structure of a protein almost as easily as you can do a keyword Google search,” Hassabis said.

Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, echoed the amazement of many outside scientists. “AlphaFold is the singular and momentous advance in life science that demonstrates the power of AI,” he tweeted. “With this new addition of structures illuminating nearly the entire protein universe, we can expect more biological mysteries to be solved each day.”

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