A pair of AI researchers behind the protein-folding program Alphafold has received one of five $3 million (US) “Breakthrough Prizes”.
The Breakthrough Prizes were founded a decade ago by a group of internet entrepreneurs including Yuri Milner, a Russian-Israeli billionaire, and Mark Zuckerberg, the American chief executive of Meta.
They reward five annual awards for researchers who have made “game-changing discoveries” in three fields: Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics, and Mathematics.
They’re considered the most lucrative awards in science.
UK-based AI researchers Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, the brains behind Deepmind’s Alphafold, are among the laureates for the Life Sciences prize.
Alphafold has predicted the structures for almost all proteins known to science. Understanding how proteins fold is a notoriously difficult problem, and Alphafold represents a colossal leap forward in the field.
Two other Life Sciences prizes have been awarded, one to Clifford Brangwynne, based at Princeton University in the US, and Anthony Hyman, based at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, for their discovery of a new process in cellular dynamics. They’ve shown how proteins and other biomolecules in cells can interact with each other without a cell membrane present.
Another has gone to Emmanuel Mignot, from Stanford University in the US, and Masashi Yanagisawa, at Japan’s University of Tsukuba, for their work on narcolepsy – a disorder that features chronic attacks of drowsiness..
Mignot and Yanagisawa both discovered separately that a protein called orexin, which normally regulates wakefulness, plays a key role in narcolepsy. When the immune system attacks the cells that make orexin, people can develop neurodegenerative narcolepsy. This work has spurred treatments which relieve narcoleptic symptoms.
The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics went to an international group of four researchers for “foundational work in the field of quantum information”, while the prize in mathematics went to US mathematician Daniel Spielman for “contributions to theoretical computer science and mathematics”.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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