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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

Kaine, Collins' censure resolution seeks to bar Trump from holding office again

Sen. Tim Kaine (center) and Sen. Susan Collins (right). Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool via Getty Images

Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are forging ahead with a draft proposal to censure former President Trump, and are considering introducing the resolution on the Senate floor next week.

Why it matters: Senators are looking for a way to condemn Trump on the record as it becomes increasingly unlikely Democrats will obtain the 17 Republican votes needed to gain a conviction, Axios Alayna Treene writes. "I think it’s important for the Senate's leadership to understand that there are alternatives," Kaine told CNN on Wednesday.

Stark reminder for America's corporate leaders

Rosalind "Roz" Brewer is about to become only the second Black woman to permanently lead a Fortune 500 company. She starts as Walgreens CEO on March 15.

Why it matters: It's a stark reminder of how far corporate America's top decision-makers have to go during an unprecedented push by politicians, employees and even a stock exchange to diversify their top ranks.

Ina Fried, author of Login
Updated 2 hours ago - Technology

Apple's quarterly sales top $100 billion for first time

Credit: Apple

Spurred by strong sales of the latest iPhones, Apple reported it took in a record $111 billion in revenue for the three months ended Dec. 31, as the company crushed expectations.

Why it matters: The move showed even a pandemic didn't dull demand for Apple's latest smartphones.