Scientists have hailed a 'once in a generation' breakthrough for our understanding of the human body that paves the way for new treatments for dozens of diseases, from malaria to cancer.
Artificial intelligence developers have created a programme that can determine the exact dimensions of the tiny, complex, unmapped proteins that make up the human body - and every living thing on the planet - several hundred times faster than by using conventional techniques.
At the moment, it takes anything from several months to years to unravel the hugely complicated series of twists, turns and folds that make up a single protein, since they are far too small to see under a microscope.
That time shrinks to just two days using the new ‘AlphaFold’ programme, created by DeepMind, the London-based AI company which also designed the programme that defeated the world champion Go, the Chinese chess-like game, in 2016.
“This advance is a major breakthrough in a long-standing grand challenge in science, which we hope will have a big impact on our ability to understand disease and the biology of life,” said DeepMind founder and chief executive, Demis Hassabis.
The body is made up of 20,000 different proteins - and so far we only know the shape of 5,000 of these, after decades of painstaking mapping from scientists. Now, scientists say the entire human proteome - the protein equivalent of the genome for genes - is “within reach”, with most, if not all, of the remaining 15,000 proteins expected to be detailed within five years using AI.
Knowing the exact dimensions of these proteins will give a much clearer insight into the role they play in the human body as form and function are closely aligned - and in the case of diseases, knowing the precise shape of the proteins behind them can lead to the development of new drugs that can precisely lock onto and overpower them.
The breakthrough could also provide a massive boost for the environment, enabling the creation of new proteins, of the type known as enzymes, that could chew up plastics or dispose of industrial waste - as well as others that might boost the nutritional value or yield of wheat and other popular crops.
And it could also help protect us against future pandemics by rapidly determining the exact makeup of the virus and the way it interacts with our bodies, potentially speeding the development of vaccines and treatments.
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