AI protein-folding algorithms solve structures faster than ever

Deep learning makes its mark on protein-structure prediction.

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The race to crack one of biology’s grandest challenges — predicting the 3D structures of proteins from their amino-acid sequences — is intensifying, thanks to new artificial-intelligence (AI) approaches.

At the end of last year, Google’s AI firm DeepMind debuted an algorithm called AlphaFold, which combined two techniques that were emerging in the field and beat established contenders in a competition on protein-structure prediction by a surprising margin. And in April this year, a US researcher revealed an algorithm that uses a totally different approach. He claims his AI is up to one million times faster at predicting structures than DeepMind’s, although probably not as accurate in all situations.

More broadly, biologists are wondering how else deep learning — the AI technique used by both approaches — might be applied to the prediction of protein arrangements, which ultimately dictate a protein’s function. These approaches are cheaper and faster than existing lab techniques such as X-ray crystallography, and the knowledge could help researchers to better understand diseases and design drugs. “There’s a lot of excitement about where things might go now,” says John Moult, a biologist at the University of Maryland in College Park and the founder of the biennial competition, called Critical Assessment of protein Structure Prediction (CASP), where teams are challenged to design computer programs that predict protein structures from sequences.

By: Matthew Hutson/ Nature News

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