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AlphaFold2, a wonder! AI cracking the "Protein Folding Problem"

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Image by Gerd Altmann in Pixabay

It was during my final year of high school when I had an opportunity to visit IISER, Kolkata for a Science Workshop (organised by JBNSTS). There during one of our sessions on molecular biology, we were introduced to a software in which we could play around with protein strands and try to come up with ideal 3D configuration of the tertiary structure of the protein. It was quite interesting messing around with the software, and a professor there said that it was one of the craziest scientific challenges that we were yet to sort out - the "Protein Folding Problem", a natural catnip for scientists!

But, hey yo, hol' up! AI just "solved" it! Google AI offshoot DeepMind has actually made, as Nature puts it, "a gargantuan leap" in solving the Protein Folding Problem with its AlphaFold 2 model! It might as well be considered as the most important achievement in AI—ever!

The Protein Folding Problem - One of Life’s Great Mysteries

What any given protein can do depends on its unique 3D structure.

Proteins are comprised of chains of amino acids. Our genes encode for these amino acid sequences. But just because you know the genetic recipe for a protein doesn’t mean you automatically know its shape. DNA only contains information about the sequence of amino acids - not how they fold into shape. The bigger the protein, the more difficult it is to model, because there are more interactions between amino acids to take into account. 

Complex 3D shapes emerge from a string of amino acids.

Basically, the protein folding problem is the question of how a protein's amino acid sequence dictates its three-dimensional atomic structure. The “protein folding problem” consists of three closely related puzzles:

  • What is the folding code?
  • What is the folding mechanism?
  • Can we predict the native structure of a protein from its amino acid sequence?

A protein’s shape is closely linked with its function, and the ability to predict this structure unlocks a greater understanding of what it does and how it works. Over the past five decades, using experimental techniques like cryo-electron microscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance and X-ray crystallography, researchers have been able to determine shapes of proteins in labs. But each of these methods depends on a lot of trial and error, which can take years of work, and cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per protein structure.

In his acceptance speech for the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Christian Anfinsen famously postulated that, in theory, a protein’s amino acid sequence should fully determine its structure. This hypothesis sparked a five decade quest to be able to computationally predict a protein’s 3D structure based solely on its 1D amino acid sequence as a complementary alternative to these expensive and time consuming experimental methods. The ability to predict a protein’s shape computationally from its genetic code alone – rather than determining it through costly experimentation – could help accelerate research.  

Levinthal’s paradox

The number of ways a protein could theoretically fold before settling into its final 3D structure is astronomical. In 1969 Cyrus Levinthal noted that it would take longer than the age of the known universe to enumerate all possible configurations of a typical protein by brute force calculation – Levinthal estimated 10300 possible conformations for a typical protein. Yet in nature, proteins fold spontaneously, some within milliseconds – a dichotomy sometimes referred to as Levinthal’s paradox. What are the rates and routes (pathways) by which the astronomically large conformational spaces of a protein are searched so efficiently, by random processes, to find these uniquely structured native states? How could order arise from disorder so fast? Pretty interesting, innit?

CASP Assessment and AlphaFold's Startling Accuracy

CASP stands for Critical Assessment of protein Structure Prediction. In 1994, Professor John Moult and Professor Krzysztof Fidelis founded CASP as a biennial blind assessment to catalyse research, monitor progress, and establish the state of the art in protein structure prediction. It is a unique global community built on shared endeavour and is also considered the gold standard for assessing predictive techniques. Protein structures that have only very recently been experimentally determined are chosen to be targets for teams to test their structure prediction methods against. Participants must blindly predict the structure of the proteins, and these predictions are subsequently compared to the ground truth experimental data when they become available.

According to Professor Moult, a score of around 90 GDT is informally considered to be competitive with results obtained from experimental methods. [GDT or Global Distance Test  is the main metric used by CASP to measure the accuracy of predictions, and it ranges from 0-100. In simple terms, GDT can be approximately thought of as the percentage of amino acid residues (beads in the protein chain) within a threshold distance from the correct position.]

Surprisingly enough, in the results from the 14th CASP assessment (2020), Deepmind's latest AlphaFold 2 system achieves a median score of 92.4 GDT overall across all targets. In some cases, says Moult, it was not clear whether the discrepancy between AlphaFold’s predictions and the experimental result was a prediction error or an artefact of the experiment. Bruh!

On its first foray into the competition, in CASP13 (2018), DeepMind with its initial version of AlphaFold, topped a table of 98 entrants, predicting the most accurate structure for 25 out of 43 proteins, compared with three out of 43 for the second placed team in the same category. That was a great surprise in itself, but the return of DeepMind with Alphafold 2 and achieving a median score of 92.4 GDT resulted in an epic "hold my beer" moment for everyone! Nobody expected such a huge leap in accuracy.


Two examples of protein targets in the free modelling category. AlphaFold predicts highly accurate structures measured against experimental result. (Source:

The AlphaFold2 AI Model

In the words of Columbia University’s Mohammed AlQuraishi, “AlphaFold is both a tour de force of technical innovation and a beautifully designed learning machine, easily containing the equivalent of six or seven solid ML papers but somehow functioning as a single force of nature.”

Yep, it's complicated and it's difficult to lay down the concept in a few lines. (To dig into the details of the algorithm, you can go refer to this review article:

But, I would try to provide a brief overview here. 

Any machine learning endeavour revolves primarily around 2 key components: a training dataset and an algorithm trained upon the training data, to finally achieve a level of efficiency to compute test data.
  • The Training Dataset: AlphaFold was trained on a few different "open-source" (ah, one of my favorite topics that I like to talk about) or publicly available data sources. The Protein Data Bank (PDB) is a database containing the three-dimensional structures and associated amino acid sequences for virtually all proteins whose structures have been determined by mankind—around 180,000 in total, spanning human and non-human proteins. Another database, UniProt, contains the amino acid sequences (without structures) for nearly two hundred million more proteins.
  • The Algorithm: For the latest version of AlphaFold, used at CASP14, they created an "attention-based neural network system", built with transformers, the same cutting-edge neural network architecture that powers well-known language models like GPT-3 and BERT. The AlphaFold team created a new type of transformer designed specifically to work with three-dimensional structures, which they call Invariant Point Attention (IPA). [might seem Greek and Latin, anyways..]
You can think of a folded protein as a "spatial graph", where residues are the nodes and edges connect the residues in close proximity. This graph is important for understanding the physical interactions within proteins, as well as their evolutionary history. As DeepMind explains in their blog, the trained AlphaFold 2 model attempts to interpret the structure of this graph, while reasoning over the implicit graph that it’s building. It uses evolutionarily related sequences, multiple sequence alignment (MSA), and a representation of amino acid residue pairs to refine this graph. By iterating this process, the system develops strong predictions of the underlying physical structure of the protein and is able to determine highly-accurate structures in a matter of days. Additionally, AlphaFold can predict which parts of each predicted protein structure are reliable using an internal confidence measure.

An overview of the main neural network model architecture. The model operates over evolutionarily related protein sequences as well as amino acid residue pairs, iteratively passing information between both representations to generate a structure. (Source:

It's worth mentioning that though DeepMind does have access to far greater computing resources than the typical academic lab, AlphaFold does not merely represent a triumph of brute-force computational power. The amount of compute required to train AlphaFold was in fact modest relative to other high-profile AI models. Building AlphaFold required brilliant software engineering and several significant machine learning innovations. 

In July 2021, DeepMind open-sourced AlphaFold and its associated protein structures. This open source code provides an implementation of the AlphaFold v2.0 system. It allows users to predict the 3-D structure of arbitrary proteins with unprecedented accuracy. This is a move whose effects will be felt for years to come. In the words of EMBL-EBI Director Ewan Birney: “This will be one of the most important datasets since the mapping of the Human Genome.”

AlphaFold 2 open-source code:

AlphaFold Protein Structure Database:

The Potential Real-world Impact

AF2 is dope AF.👌

It represents the first time that AI has significantly advanced the frontiers of humanity’s scientific knowledge. It has major implications for solving many 21st-century problems, impacting on health, ecology, the environment and basically on anything that involves living systems.

Evolutionary biologist Andrei Lupas says, “This will change medicine. It will change research. It will change bioengineering. It will change everything.” AlphaFold has already enabled Lupas’ lab to determine the structure of a protein that had eluded it for a decade.

It is going to have a huge impact on drug discovery and protein design. Knowing the three-dimensional shape of a prospective protein target is essential to this process because a protein’s shape defines which and how other molecules will bind to it. AlphaFold makes available a vast new set of drug target candidates to explore.

Figuring out the most viable and impactful ways to translate AlphaFold’s fundamental insights into products that create value in the real world will entail years of hard work from researchers and entrepreneurs.

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), the non-profit research organization in charge of stewarding AlphaFold, opines, “AlphaFold will provide new insights and understanding of fundamental processes related to health and disease, with applications in biotechnology, medicine, agriculture, food science and bioengineering. It will probably take one or two decades until the full impact of this development can be properly assessed.”


Few Meaningful Limitations of AF2

AlphaFold2, essentially, predicts one stable conformation per protein, but proteins are dynamic and may change shape as they move through the body. Edge cases—like intrinsically disordered proteins and unnatural amino acids—can trip AlphaFold up. Also. its predictions are not always as accurate as more traditional experimental methods. It generates predictions about individual protein structures, but it sheds little light on multiprotein complexes, protein-DNA interactions, protein-small molecule interactions, and the like—dynamics that are essential to understand for many biomedical use cases. As I have outlined before, like any AI system, AlphaFold has learned to make predictions based on its training data, and hence it may struggle to accurately predict the shapes of unusual new proteins, including de novo protein designs not found in nature. But, what it has already achieved is a huge accomplishment in itself and AlphaFold is just the beginning! Now that we are starting to reap the benefits of AI in real life applications, structural biology (and the life sciences more broadly) will never be the same - scientific progress in these disciplines will happen by leaps and bounds!


Finding a solution to the “protein folding problem” has stood as a grand challenge in the field of biology for about half a century. It has stumped generations of scientists. Hence, AlphaFold is a scientific achievement of the first order. CASP co-founder and long-time protein folding expert John Moult put the AlphaFold achievement in historical context: “This is the first time a serious scientific problem has been solved by AI.” Systems like AlphaFold demonstrate the stunning potential for AI as a tool to aid fundamental scientific discovery.

Koustav Sinha Ray

aka The OffBeat Doc. Would-be-Doctor (MBBS Student at Calcutta National Medical College), founder and editor-in-chief of Healthstash.

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