AlphaFold reveals the structure of the protein universe
Just one year after its breakthrough release of predicted structures for some 350,000 proteins, DeepMind has unveiled the likely structures of nearly all known proteins — more than 200 million from bacteria to humans — paving the way for the development of new medicines or technologies to tackle global challenges such as famine or pollution.
At the core of this striking achievement is AlphaFold, one of the new AI programs that have cracked the protein-folding problem, the long-standing challenge of accurately predicting the 3D shapes of proteins from their amino acid sequences. According to Demis Hassabis, founder and CEO of DeepMind, AlphaFold “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.”
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. Determining the 3D structure of a protein used to take months or years, it now takes seconds. AlphaFold has already accelerated and enabled massive discoveries, including cracking the structure of the nuclear pore complex. And with this new addition of structures illuminating nearly the entire protein universe, we can expect more biological mysteries to be solved each day.
With more than 500,000 researchers using AlphaFold since its launch last year, Hassibis predicted a “new era in digital biology” in which drug developers could go from AI-predicted structures of proteins important to any medical condition to using AI to design small molecules that influence those proteins—and therefore treat an illness.
Others are using the structure predictions to develop vaccine candidates, probe basic biology questions such as how the so-called nuclear pore complex gatekeeps into which molecules enter a cell’s nucleus, or examine the evolution of proteins when life first evolved.
Despite being at their early stage of development, these advances are a great testament to the power of AlphaFold. We can indeed expect more biological mysteries to be solved each day.