The latest Breakthrough Prizes – among the most lucrative research awards in the world – were presented today (September 22) to life scientists working in fields as diverse as neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Six men shared three awards, each worth $3 million and sponsored by philanthropists Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Julia and Yuri Milner, and Anne Wojcicki.
The first prize is shared by geneticist Anthony Hyman from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and bioengineer Clifford Brangwynne from Princeton University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, formerly a postdoc in Hyman’s laboratory, for their work in discovering a fundamental mechanism of cell organization: liquid-liquid phase separation. When the two scientists first published a paper on the phenomenon Science In 2009, according to a Princeton press release, it received little publicity outside of a small group of niche researchers, receiving only about 10 citations in its early years. “I knew it was cool. But nobody talked about awards,” Brangwynne says in the press release, adding that “a lot has happened since then.”
See “These Organelles Have No Membranes”
Today, phase separation has been found to play a role in protein aggregation, gene expression, cell growth, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases, among other processes.
Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, both artificial intelligence researchers at London-based computer programming company DeepMind, received a joint award for their work developing AlphaFold 2, a deep learning system that accurately and rapidly models the three-dimensional structure of proteins. Predicting the shapes that proteins take, which in turn determine their function, is one of the great challenges of modern biology. This summer, the team published the predicted structures for 200 million proteins, derived from almost every organism, with protein sequence data, and made their results freely available. “Few discoveries are changing a field so dramatically and so quickly,” says Mohammed AlQuraishi, a bioinformatician at Columbia University in New York City Nature. “It has really changed the practice of structural biology, both computationally and experimentally.”
Finally, Stanford University School of Medicine sleep researcher Emmanuel Mignot and University of Tsukuba molecular geneticist Masashi Yanagisawa received a joint award after their labs made simultaneous, converging discoveries that elucidated the genetic cause of the chronic sleep disorder narcolepsy. The two researchers’ work showed that narcolepsy is a neurodegenerative disease of autoimmune origin and mediated by a protein called orexin (or sometimes hypocretin) that regulates wakefulness. Research has yet to lead to a treatment for the condition, but many potential therapies are in clinical trials. “If all goes well, there will be a clinically available drug treatment within maybe three or four years,” says Yanagisawa New scientist.
See “Persistent Pursuit of Sleep”
In addition to the life sciences, breakthrough prizes were also awarded in mathematics and basic physics. The prizes honor contributions to the study of theoretical computer science and quantum information.