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In June, South Korean regulators authorized the first-ever medicine, a COVID-19 vaccine, to be made from a novel protein designed by humans. The vaccine is based on a spherical protein ‘nanoparticle’ that was created by researchers nearly a decade ago, through a labour-intensive trial-and error-process1.

Now, thanks to gargantuan advances in artificial intelligence (AI), a team led by David Baker, a biochemist at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, reports in Science2,3 that it can design such molecules in seconds instead of months.

Such efforts are a part of a scientific sea change, as AI tools such as DeepMind’s protein-structure-prediction software AlphaFold are embraced by life scientists. In July, DeepMind revealed that the latest version of AlphaFold had predicted structures for every protein known to science. And recent months have seen an explosive growth in AI tools — some based on AlphaFold — that can quickly dream up completely new proteins. Previously, this had been a painstaking pursuit with high failure rates.

“Since AlphaFold, there’s been a shift in the way we work with protein design,” says Noelia Ferruz, a computational biologist at the University of Girona, Spain. “We are witnessing very exciting times.”

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