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The structure of T1037, part of a protein from a phage that infects viruses. Credit: DeepMind

Google's DeepMind this week reported solving one of biology's long-standing problems: predicting the 3D structure of proteins.

Why it matters: Being able to determine protein structure could help to speed up drug development and aid researchers in understanding the basic biology of disease.

The problem: Predicting how physics arranges the atoms in amino acids, giving rise to the twisted and folded structure of proteins, is one of biology's toughest challenges.

  • A protein's structure determines whether and how it binds to other proteins and molecules — biological processes that underpin life.
  • The structure also plays a role in how drugs bind to proteins in the body.
  • “We have been stuck on this one problem — how do proteins fold up — for nearly 50 years," John Moult, a professor at the University of Maryland and a co-founder of the Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction, or CASP, said in a press release.

What's happening: At Monday's meeting of CASP, DeepMind announced that AlphaFold 2 — its second contender in the assessment that has happened every two years since 1994 — can reliably and accurately predict protein structures to within the width of an atom.

  • CASP teams are given the sequences of proteins or parts of proteins over the course of a few months and submit the predicted structures.
  • About two-thirds of the time, AlphaFold accurately predicted the protein structure on par with X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy, tried-and-true experimental techniques for determining protein structures that are expensive, time-consuming and a scientific art form.
  • AlphaFold is a deep-learning network trained on about 170,000 protein structures. One area where the system struggled is with groups of proteins that can distort each other's shape, Nature News reported.

Keep in mind: Determining a protein's structure is a big step, but just one in the process of developing new drugs.

  • "But DeepMind’s methods could be a way of determining whether a clinical trial will fail because of toxic reactions or other problems, at least in some cases," NYT's Cade Metz writes.

Go deeper

Pope Francis denounces European governments' migrant response

Pope Francis adresses refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on Sunday. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis criticized European countries' response to migrants and asylum seekers during his visit to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos Sunday.

Why it matters: The pope said "migration is a humanitarian crisis that concerns everyone," but little had changed in the global response to displaced peoples since his first visit to Lesbos five years ago, per a transcript of his remarks. "Human lives, real people, are at stake. ... let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!"

Chris Cuomo accuser: On-air "hypocrisy" spurred report

Journalist Chris Cuomo. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

A woman who accused fired CNN journalist Chris Cuomo of sexual misconduct said Sunday she decided to come forward after learning of his comments about women who made similar accusations about his brother. He denies her allegations.

Why it matters: Her attorney Debra Katz said in a statement that she heard "the hypocrisy" of his on-air words about his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and was "disgusted by his efforts to try to discredit these women," so "retained counsel to report his serious sexual misconduct against her to CNN."

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director says number of U.S. Omicron cases "likely to rise" — Two years of COVID-19 — Prior coronavirus infections may not protect well against Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Data demonstrates most-vaccinated counties less vulnerable to worst of COVID — Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate.
  4. World: Vaccine mandates lose steam in the U.S. while Europe doubles downWHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.