THE 2023 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, announced on September 21, honoured John Jumper and Demis Hassabis, the scientists who invented AlphaFold, the artificial intelligence (AI) system that solved the long-standing challenge of predicting the 3D structure of proteins from the one-dimensional sequence of their amino acids. Jumper is a computational biologist at Google DeepMind, London, and Hassabis is the co-founder and CEO of the company.
“With brilliant ideas, intensive efforts, and supreme engineering,” the Lasker Foundation citation said, “[the duo] led the AlphaFold team and propelled structure prediction to an unprecedented level of accuracy and speed. This new AI tool is rapidly advancing our understanding of fundamental biological processes and facilitating drug design.”
The complexity of 3D protein structures and the sheer number of possible conformations meant that time-consuming experimental approaches and computational techniques had limited success. Things changed in 2018 when Hassabis, Jumper, and their team released AlphaFold1, which outperformed other computational protein prediction approaches. They continued improving AlphaFold using a combination of computational strategies and collective wisdom on proteins and protein structure.
AlphaFold2 made more precise structure predictions even for proteins that lacked a template. By 2021, they had predicted structures for 3,50,000 proteins, including the roughly 20,000 that make up the human system. By July 2022, the team could predict the 3D structures for about 200 million proteins in all the organisms sequenced to date, and their possible mutations, providing essential information for drug development.
Blue-light filter in glasses does not reduce eye strain
SINCE the early 2000s, blue-light-blocking spectacles have been increasingly prescribed or recommended to reduce eye strain caused by computer use or to improve sleep quality. A new review of 17 randomised controlled trials in six countries provides the best available evidence so far that such spectacles probably make no difference.
Published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, the review was carried out by researchers from the University of Melbourne, the City University of London, and Monash University. The effects of blue-light filtering lenses were compared with normal lenses for their ability to improve visual performance and sleep quality and protect the retina. The number of participants in the 17 studies varied from five to 156, and they were assessed for periods ranging from less than a day to five weeks.
“We found there may be no short-term advantages with using blue-light-filtering spectacle lenses to reduce visual fatigue associated with computer use compared to non-blue-light filtering lenses,” said Laura Downie of Melbourne University, who led the review. “It is also currently unclear whether these lenses affect vision quality or sleep-related outcomes, and no conclusions could be drawn about any potential effects on retinal health in the longer term,” she added. “The amount of blue light our eyes receive from artificial sources, such as computer screens, is about a thousandth of what we get from natural daylight,” said Sumeer Singh, Downie’s co-worker.
Europa’s ocean has carbon
JUPITER’S moon Europa is thought to have a subsurface ocean of salty liquid water beneath a crust of solid water ice. Because of this, Europa is a prime target in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system. This deep ocean’s potential habitability depends on its chemistry, including the abundance of biologically essential elements like carbon.
Using the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) observations of carbon dioxide ice on Europa, two independent studies indicate that the CO2 originates from a source within this icy body’s subsurface ocean. These findings, which were published in Science, provide new insights into the poorly known composition of Europa’s ocean. Previous research had detected CO2 ice on Europa’s surface, but it had not been possible to establish whether the CO2 originated from the subsurface ocean or was delivered by meteorite impacts or was produced on the surface through interactions with Jupiter’s magnetosphere.
In both the present studies, researchers analysed near-infrared spectroscopy ofCO2 on Europa’s surface obtained with the JWST. One study found that the highest abundance of CO2 is located in Tara Regio, a ~1,800 sq km region dominated by geologically disrupted resurfaced materials. According to its authors, Samantha Trumbo and Michael Brown, the amount of CO2 identified within Tara Regio indicates that it was derived from an internal source of carbon. However, they say that formation of CO2 on the surface from ocean-derived organics or carbonates cannot be entirely ruled out. In either case, the subsurface ocean contains carbon.
The second study of the same JWST data, by Geronimo Villanueva and colleagues, found that the CO2 is mixed with other compounds. This team also found that the CO2 is concentrated in Tara Regio and interpreted that as demonstrating that the carbon was sourced from within. The results in both studies complement each other and reinforce the conclusion that Europa’s subsurface ocean contains abundant carbon.
Best way to lower blood pressure
ACCORDING to results from 270 randomised clinical trials involving 15,827 participants, isometric exercises are the best for lowering resting blood pressure (BP) compared with combined training, dynamic resistance training, aerobic exercise, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Isometric exercises involve the static contraction of muscles to hold the body in position without moving (that is, without any change in the length of the muscle or change in the angle of a joint), such as sitting in the chair position against a wall, squatting, and the “plank”. Many asanas in yoga are basically isometric exercises. The study found that such exercises reduced both resting systolic and diastolic BP (–8.24/–4.00 mm of mercury). Existing guidelines, which are based on older research and do not include data from new forms of exercise such as HIIT, tend to emphasise the importance of aerobic training such as running to control BP, the researchers noted. In addition to helping clinicians optimise individualised exercise recommendations, the new findings suggest that exercise guidelines for preventing and treating high BP need to be updated, they wrote in an issue of British Journal of Sports Medicine.