AI Solves 50-Year-Old Biological Mystery In A Matter of Days

Scientists have long been trying to figure out how protein folds into a 3D shape.
Fabienne Lang

Scientists have been researching how a protein folds into a unique 3D shape for approximately 50 years.

Now, thanks to the use of artificial intelligence (AI), U.K.-based AI lab, DeepMind, has helped to solve this scientific mystery, as the organizers of a scientific challenge, CASP (Critical Assessment of protein Structure Prediction) said, which kicked off in the early 1990s, reports Science Alert.

Understanding a protein shape could lead to major scientific advancements, as well as environmental ones, per the BBC

The full findings have not yet been published, explains Science Alert, however, the study's abstract can be read over on CASP14, here.


Proteins are integral as they are present in all living things. They are made up of a string of amino acids, which are what fold up the protein into unique 3D shapes, holding the key to how they carry out their vital functions, reports the BBC.

"There are tens of thousands of human proteins and many billions in other species, including bacteria and viruses, but working out the shape of just one requires expensive equipment and can take years," said Dr. John Moult of the University of Maryland, US, the chair of the panel of scientific adjudicators, in DeepMind's blog.

The CASP challenge sees scores of teams put their protein shape predictions forward every two years. Reaching a score of 90, which DeepMind's AlphaFold's system managed, is deemed comparable to that of techniques used in labs, explained the BBC.

DeepMind's AlphaFold program was able to figure out in a matter of days what usually takes a lab years to discover.

Other scientists will check the data to see how accurate the AI system is, however, the initial findings are promising, reported Science Alert.

"This computational work represents a stunning advance on the protein-folding problem, a 50-year old grand challenge in biology," said structural biologist Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society.

"It has occurred decades before many people in the field would have predicted."


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