Science: Deciphering protein structures is the turn of the year

Each year, shortly before Christmas, the specialist journal Science selects the most important events of the year – and thus reviews the scientific year again. This time, at the turn of 2021, the decision was made to decode the protein code by AI systems. Two adaptive algorithms managed to predict a protein’s three-dimensional structure based solely on its amino acid sequence – an achievement that for a long time was considered nearly impossible. Highlights of the year also include anti-viral pills and anti-Covid-19 antibodies, advances in nuclear fusion, and the first glimpses of Mars’s inner workings.

What were the outstanding scientific discoveries and discoveries this year? What development has particular potential for the future? Every year, just before Christmas, the editors and publishers of the specialist magazine “Science” choose their top ten: research results and discoveries they consider to be the most important. At the turn of the year, they choose one of ten. Previous events included the development of Covid-19 vaccines in 2020, the first photo of a black hole taken by the Event Horizon network of telescopes in 2019, and an insight into embryonic development in 2018. In addition to these ‘officially’ selected tidbits, industry magazine readers also get vote and they can vote for their favorites.

Cracked protein code

Proteins are the basic building blocks of our lives, and almost all cell and body functions are based on them. The three-dimensional structure in which the chains of amino acids are folded determine their function. For example, their shape determines whether enzymes are working, cells grow, or whether our blood transports oxygen. However, protein structures also have an impact on whether the coronavirus can dock in our cells and whether vaccines against mutant variants are still effective. This makes it all the more important to know the exact shape of the protein. However, accurately mapping a folded fold is extremely labor-intensive and can take years. Therefore, for almost 50 years, scientists have been looking for a way to determine the three-dimensional shape of a protein from its amino acid sequence. However, since there are countless possible configurations, this was long considered impossible.

But that has changed. Thanks to advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence systems, algorithms have now deciphered the hidden laws of protein folding – and for the first time accurately predicted protein structures from amino acid sequences. Two artificial intelligence systems – AlphaFold from the Google DeepMind research center and RoseTTAFold from scientists at the University of Maryland – achieved achievements in 2021 that were previously only achievable with prolonged lab work. Thanks to these two artificial intelligence systems, the three-dimensional structure of 350,000 proteins in the human body and about a thousand other proteins have been deciphered. “This is a double breakthrough,” said Holden Thorp, science editor in chief. “First, it solves a problem that has been on your to-do list for 50 years. On the other hand, it is a breakthrough technology that will enormously accelerate scientific progress. ” The editors therefore chose these achievements as the turn of the year, and the readers came to the same conclusion when selecting their favorites.

Antiviral drugs, psychedelics, and blastocysts

Apart from the breakthrough year, the “Science” team chose other attractions. These include several medically important advances, including the first pill-based drugs against Covid-19. According to preliminary studies, Merck’s Molnpiravir antivirals and Pfizer’s Paxlovid reduce mortality and the risk of severe coronavirus infection. The coronation pandemic also brought some success with antibody preparations against these and other infectious diseases. The editors of Science also classify two studies in which the Crispr / Cas gene scissors were first used directly in the body of patients for gene therapy as a breakthrough in medicine. The method repaired genetic defects that were causing eye disease and liver damage.

Another attraction concerns the use of psychedelic substances against various mental illnesses. The researchers were able to help patients with severe, resistant to treatment depression by using the active ingredient psilocybin found in magic mushrooms. Another team successfully used MDMA, known as ecstasy, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. On the other hand, the development of technologies by which the early developmental stages of human embryos can be grown from cells in the laboratory serves more fundamental research. These blastocysts are not viable, but they allow the study of important stages in embryonic development without the need for real embryos.

Fusion, muons, and the inner workings of Mars

There were also two major events selected by Science in Physics. In August 2021, the nuclear fusion experiment at the US National Ignition Facility set a record in energy production for the first time. Nuclear fusion by laser beams in a mixture of deuterium and tritium released 1.35 megajoules of energy, very close to the break-even point. This is the point at which fusion produces more energy than is needed to do so. The second physical distinction relates to the result of the g2 muon experiment in Fermilab in the USA. There, scientists measured significant variations in the anomalous magnetic moment of the muon – the heavier “cousin” of the electron. This may indicate that the muon is interacting with previously unknown particles or forces.

Extraterrestrial is the highlight of the year in planetary research: NASA’s Mars InSight space probe for the first time has provided more detailed information on the inner workings of the red planet through seismic measurements. They reveal that our planetary neighbor has an extremely thin multi-piece shell, but no lower mantle. In addition, the core of the planet appears to be larger and lighter than previously thought. Among the breakthrough discoveries this year, the journal also lists advances in the extraction and analysis of prehistoric DNA from soil samples, such as several caves once inhabited by Neanderthals or early Homo sapiens. Genetic material left in the environment provides valuable information about the origins, relationships and lifestyle of our ancestors.

Source: Science, doi: 10.1126 / science.abn5795

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