Breakthrough A.I. Makes Huge Leap Toward Solving 50-Year-Old Problem in Biology | Smart News

Life on Earth relies on microscopic machines called proteins that are vital to everything from holding up the structure of each cell, to reading genetic code, to carrying oxygen through the bloodstream. With meticulous lab work, scientists have figured out the precise, 3-D shapes of about 170,000 proteins—but there are at least 200 million more to go, Robert F. Service reports for Science magazine.

Now, the artificial intelligence company DeepMind, which is owned by the same company that owns Google, has developed a tool that can predict the 3-D shapes of most proteins with similar results to experiments in the lab, Cade Metz reports for the New York Times. While lab experiments can take years to tease out a protein structure, DeepMind’s tool, called AlphaFold, can come up with a structure in just a few days, per Nature’s Ewen Callaway. The tool could help speed up studies in medicine development and bioengineering.

Molecular biologists want to know the structures of proteins because the shape of a molecule determines what it’s able to do. For instance, if a protein is causing damage in the body, then scientists could study its structure and then find another protein that fits it like a puzzle piece to neutralize it. AlphaFold could accelerate that process.

“This is going to empower a new generation of molecular biologists to ask more advanced questions,” says Max Planck Institute evolutionary biologist Andrei Lupas to Nature. “It’s going to require more thinking and less pipetting.”

DeepMind tested out AlphaFold by entering it in a biennial challenge called Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction, or CASP, for which Lupas was a judge. CASP provides a framework for developers to test their protein-prediction software. It’s been running since 1994, but the recent rise of machine learning in protein structure prediction has pushed participants to new levels. AlphaFold first participated last year and scored about 15% better than the other entries, per Science magazine. This year, a new computational strategy helped AlphaFold leave the competition in the dust.

Proteins are made of chains of chemicals called amino acids that are folded up into shapes, like wire sculptures. There are 20 kinds of amino acids, each with their own chemical characteristics that affect how they interact with others along the strand. Those interactions determine how the strand folds up into a 3-D shape. And because these chains can have dozens or hundreds of amino acids, predicting how a strand will fold based just on a list of amino acids is a challenge.

But that’s exactly what CASP asks participants to do. CASP assessors like Lupas have access to the answer key—the 3-D structure of a protein that was determined in a lab, but not yet published publicly. AlphaFold’s entries were anonymized as “group 427,” but after they solved structure after structure, Lupas was able to guess that it was theirs, he tells Nature.

“Most atoms are within an atom diameter of where they are in the experimental structure,” says CASP co-founder

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Huge Puerto Rico radio telescope, already damaged, collapses

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A huge, already damaged radio telescope in Puerto Rico that has played a key role in astronomical discoveries for more than half a century completely collapsed on Tuesday.

The telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform fell onto the reflector dish more than 400 feet below.

The U.S. National Science Foundation had earlier announced that the Arecibo Observatory would be closed. An auxiliary cable snapped in August, causing a 100-foot gash on the 1,000-foot-wide (305-meter-wide) dish and damaged the receiver platform that hung above it. Then a main cable broke in early November.

The collapse stunned many scientists who had relied on what was until recently the largest radio telescope in the world.

“It sounded like a rumble. I knew exactly what it was,” said Jonathan Friedman, who worked for 26 years as a senior research associate at the observatory and still lives near it. “I was screaming. Personally, I was out of control…. I don’t have words to express it. It’s a very deep, terrible feeling.”

Friedman ran up a small hill near his home and confirmed his suspicions: A cloud of dust hung in the air where the structure once stood, demolishing hopes held by some scientists that the telescope could somehow be repaired.

“It’s a huge loss,” said Carmen Pantoja, an astronomer and professor at the University of Puerto Rico who used the telescope for her doctorate. “It was a chapter of my life.”

Scientists worldwide had been petitioning U.S. officials and others to reverse the NSF’s decision to close the observatory. The NSF said at the time that it intended to eventually reopen the visitor center and restore operations at the observatory’s remaining assets, including its two LIDAR facilities used for upper atmospheric and ionospheric research, including analyzing cloud cover and precipitation data.

The telescope was built in the 1960s with money from the Defense Department amid a push to develop anti-ballistic missile defenses. It had endured hurricanes, tropical humidity and a recent string of earthquakes in its 57 years of operation.

The telescope has been used to track asteroids on a path to Earth, conduct research that led to a Nobel Prize and determine if a planet is potentially habitable. It also served as a training ground for graduate students and drew about 90,000 visitors a year.

“I am one of those students who visited it when young and got inspired,” said Abel Méndez, a physics and astrobiology professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo who has used the telescope for research. “The world without the observatory loses, but Puerto Rico loses even more.”

He last used the telescope on Aug. 6, just days before a socket holding the auxiliary cable that snapped failed in what experts believe could be a manufacturing error. The National Science Foundation, which owns the observatory that is managed by the University of Central Florida, said crews who evaluated the structure after the first incident determined that the remaining cables could handle the additional weight.

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No. 4 Virginia goes down as a huge favorite vs. San Francisco

It’s not quite losing to a 16 seed in March Madness, but Virginia was dealt the first major upset of the college basketball season.

Virginia, ranked No. 4, was a double-digit favorite over San Francisco. USF had already lost 76-68 to UMass Lowell this season.

And San Francisco ended up with the upset. The Dons won 61-60, with Virginia missing a 3-pointer in the final seconds. At least those who bet Virginia as a big favorite knew for a long time they had no chance to cover.

Virginia was a big favorite

Virginia was between a 14- and 15.5-point favorite at various sportsbooks before the game. It happened on a Friday morning with college football games going on, so the game at Mohegan Sun Casino probably didn’t get a lot of betting attention. It got interesting when USF had a lead after halftime and kept it for most of the second half.

San Francisco started very slowly but was able to get hot from 3. The Dons hit 13-of-28 3-point shots, a huge factor in the win. Virginia has its famous packline defense that strangles anything inside the line, so a team like USF needs to hit some threes to win.

Of course, the upset loss brought back some bad memories for Virginia, which was the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose in the first round. Of course, they won an NCAA championship the next season and technically are still defending champs.

a man holding a basketball: San Francisco's Khalil Shabazz, center, watches his 3-point basket go in against Virginia. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

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San Francisco’s Khalil Shabazz, center, watches his 3-point basket go in against Virginia. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

USF hit key shots

The Cavaliers were one of the four clear favorites to win the title going into the season at BetMGM. They finished last season strong, always play good defense and were expected to be better on offense with pieces like newcomer Sam Hauser, a Marquette transfer.

Part of Virginia’s slow-tempo, defense-first style is they’ll find themselves in close games more often than not. Then if a team like USF can string together some big 3-pointers, it’ll be in danger of losing to an inferior team.

The season is young and Virginia should be just fine. But if you expected some chaos during this weird college basketball season, you have one large upset just three days into it.

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Harry Styles had a huge impact on my career

a man wearing a suit and tie: Daniel W Fletcher GQ Magazine

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Daniel W Fletcher GQ Magazine

Daniel W Fletcher says he owes a lot of his success to Harry Styles.

The 30-year-old fashion designer – who runs his eponymous brand Daniel w. Fletcher – was contacted by the ‘Golden’ singer’s stylist, Harry Lambert, in 2015, asking to buy all of his boxy shirts from his graduate collection.

And, Daniel – who was crowned Breakthrough Designer at the GQ Men of the Year Awards on Thursday night (26.11.20) – admitted he wouldn’t be where he is now without the support of the One Direction star.

Speaking to GQ magazine, he said: “Harry had a huge impact on my career. At 24 years old I couldn’t believe what was happening.”

Daniel – whose clients also include pop stars Sam Smith and Troye Sivan – and Harry, who recently rocked a dress in Vogue, share a passion for blurring the lines between gender and fashion.

‘13 Reasons Why’ star Tommy Dorfman said of Daniel’s latest collection: “There’s a soft femininity about the clothes that aligns with my spirit – that sharp tailoring and those cinched waists in his AW20 collection.

“It’s a point reiterated by model Jack Guinness: “He’s a truly modern designer in his approach to fabric and cut, creating feminine menswear for all genders. There’s a subtle strength in the vulnerability of his work. I love wearing [his designs] on the red carpet or to a gay dive bar.”

Daniel studied menswear at the prestigious Central Saint Martins college in London, where Alexander McQueen attended.

However, before studying fashion, Daniel – who also attended Kingston University – was planning on becoming an actor.

He recalled: “I always wanted to be an actor.

“It wasn’t until I enrolled on an art foundation course at Kingston University at 18 that I decided I wanted to make clothes. Growing up in a small town in Cheshire, I didn’t think it was a viable career.”

The GQ Men of the Year Awards also awarded the Design Lead accolade to Tommy Hilfiger.

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College football rankings: Northwestern makes huge move, Indiana enters top 10 of CBS Sports 127

CBS Sports graphic

While the top eight all remained in order in the new CBS Sports 127, our comprehensive ranking of every FBS team in college football, there are some shake ups in the top 25 following a busy Week 12. Northwestern was one of the big stories of the weekend and one of the biggest movers within the top 30, rising 10 spots to No. 11 after taking down Wisconsin on Saturday. The Wildcats are 5-0 and in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten West thanks to wins against the Badgers, Purdue and Iowa, bringing them into the debate as a top 10 team and potential darkhorse for the College Football Playoff.

While Northwestern did fall one spot short of the top 10 this week in the CBS Sports 127 — our voters actually moved Indiana up two spots to No. 10 after an impressive rally came up short at Ohio State — it does have back-to-back road games against Michigan State and Minnesota forthcoming. Then the regular season concludes with the rivalry game against Illinois at home. For the Wildcats to give up their hold on the division, it would require two losses at minimum in those three games with Wisconsin winning out.

Naturally, the Badgers stumbled after the loss to Wildcats, down nine spots to No. 18. They fell behind the likes of Coastal Carolina and USC but ahead of undefeated Marshall and a trio of two-loss teams in the 20s in Oklahoma State, North Carolina and Texas. For more on the biggest adjustments not just in the top 30 but throughout the rankings, check out the Mover’s Report below. 

College football experts from CBS Sports and 247Sports contribute ballots each week, which are averaged together for our rankings. You can see the top 25 below and 26-127 on our rankings page.

Biggest movers 

  • No. 27 Nevada (+30): Undefeated and now with a win against one of the top teams in the Mountain West, the Wolf Pack showed out in the spotlight opportunity against San Diego State. Romeo Doubs looks like one of the best wide receivers in the country, and the Nevada defense was stellar in the second half. No surprise to see a big surge here for Jay Norvell’s squad. 
  • No. 35 NC State (+13): After a couple of weeks with positive results on the offensive side of the ball, NC State needed a strong effort from its defense to keep Malik Willis bottled up and hand Liberty its first loss of the season. The Wolfpack are now 6-3 with Georgia Tech and Syracuse left on the schedule, set up to finish with one of the best records in the ACC at the end of the season if they can take care of business down the stretch.  
  • No. 26 Washington (+11): It’s a small sample size, but the Huskies do seem to have an identity of physicality and elite defense that has carried over in the transition from Chris Petersen to Jimmy Lake. Washington
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Dosing ERROR at AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine trial led to huge boost in jab’s success rate

  • AstraZeneca scientist Mene Pangalos says ‘serendipity,’ led to a break through 
  • ‘Mistake’ helped scientists discover half-dose was more effective than a full one 
  • More analysis needed to explain why an initial lower dose was more effective

A dosing error by researchers on the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine trial led to a huge boost in the jab’s success rate, the firm’s vice president has revealed.

Mene Pangalos, head of AstraZeneca’s non-oncology research and development, said: ‘The reason we had the half dose is serendipity.’

Volunteers in Britain were expected to receive two full doses of the vaccine as it was trialed in the hope of funding a cure.

Dr Pangalos says researches were perplexed when they noticed volunteers were reporting much milder side effects, such as fatigue, headaches and arm aches, than were originally predicted.  

He said: ‘So we went back and checked … and we found out that they had underpredicted the dose of the vaccine by half.’

Dr Mene Pangalos, from AstraZeneca, revealed a ‘mistake,’ led to one volunteer group receiving half of their first dose – but scientists later discovered that dosage was more effective than a full one

He said the team nonetheless decided to press ahead with that half dose group, and to administer the second, full dose booster shot at the scheduled time.

The results showed the vaccine was 90 per cent effective among this group, while a larger group who had received two full doses produced an efficacy read-out of 62%, leading to an overall efficacy of 70% across both dosing patterns, Pangalos said.

‘That, in essence, is how we stumbled upon doing half dose-full dose (group),’ he told Reuters. 

‘Yes, it was a mistake.’

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The vaccine uses a harmless adenovirus to deliver genetic material that tricks the human body to produce proteins known as antigens that are normally found on the coronavirus surface, helping the immune system develop an arsenal against infection.

Pangalos said more analysis was needed to explain why an initial lower dose bolstered protection. 

One possible explanation was that lower antigen levels to begin with triggered an overall better immune system build-up, he added.  

Oxford University confirmed its cheap, easy to store and simple to deliver jab could be approved by regulators in as little as a fortnight and start to be administered next month. 

Britain has ordered 100million doses of the Oxford Universty vaccine, with almost 20million due by Christmas

Britain has ordered 100million doses, with almost 20million due by Christmas.

Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford Vaccine Group and a professor who has spent two decades running clinical trials, said that while speed of the COVID-19 vaccine’s development was in some ways extraordinary, 2020 had ‘been a very long year’ since the team started work on the vaccine in January.

That culminated this past weekend, Pollard said, in having ‘an enormous mountain to climb to pull all of the information together’ to be able to issue Monday’s data release showing the vaccine can

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Don’t Overlook the Huge Turnaround in Zillow’s Core Business

The rapid turnaround in Zillow‘s (NASDAQ:Z)(NASDAQ:ZG) core business, called Premier Agent, has been astounding. It was only about 15 months ago when growth in this business had slowed to near 0% and investors were asking hard questions.

Fast forward to last quarter, and it grew 24%. And the company’s management team expects it to grow even faster next quarter. What happened here?

The rough patch

Historically, the Premier Agent business had been an incredible growth machine. Between 2014 and 2018, Premier Agent revenue grew from $239 million to $898 million. That’s nearly a 4-fold gain in just four years, good enough for an impressive 39.2% annualized growth rate.

Couple embracing in front yard of a home.

Image source: Getty Images.

But in mid-2018, certain changes the company made to the way it distributed home buyer leads to agents did not go as planned. Specifically, management began screening leads and passing along only the higher-quality ones to agents, but stopped passing along the greater volume of lower-quality leads that agents were accustomed to getting.  

While many of them liked the higher-quality leads, many were upset that they were no longer receiving the lower-quality leads as well. This caused a significant number of agent cancellations, which caused the business’s growth to slow rapidly. By early 2019, Premier Agent revenue growth had slowed to a crawl and grew just 0.5% during the second quarter of that year.

The turnaround

To address the agent discontent, management started distributing the lower-quality leads to agents again, as well as the new, higher-quality leads it had been cultivating. That began to slowly improve sentiment among agents, but it took time for that improvement to show up in the company’s financial results.

Slowly but surely, Premier Agent revenue growth ticked higher. First, it ticked up toward mid-single digits in the second half of 2019. Then it jumped to 11% growth in the first quarter of this year, before swiftly declining 17% in the second quarter as a result of COVID-19.

That’s why the 24% growth the company just reported in its third quarter is so incredible. Management attributed the huge turnaround to connecting a greater number of high-quality leads to the best agents, who tend to convert leads into successful real estate transactions at a higher rate than average.

On the company’s conference call, management explained the strong growth this way:

Our [agents] found increased value in the Zillow platform from strong growth in customer connections. Our connection growth continues to benefit from innovations in how we service customers, looking to work with our partner agents and the varied calls to actions that our customers can select on our sites. Our Premier Agent revenue was also positively impacted in Q3 by our postpaid Flex monetization model.

Accelerating growth

The rather jaw-dropping thing is that management’s guidance for Premier Agent revenue in the fourth quarter calls for growth accelerating to a 31% year-over-year pace. That would be the fastest growth rate for Premier Agent since 2016, when it grew 35%.

Premier Agent seems poised to

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Saudi minister highlights ‘huge’ strains on global education as G-20 tackles pandemic

ISTANBUL —International efforts were needed to meet the “huge challenges” facing global educational systems as they strained to adapt to distanced learning while accommodating children with special needs, Saudi Arabia’s education minister said at the Group of 20 Summit meeting in Riyadh Sunday.

a man standing in front of a television: Saudi Arabia's Minister of Education Hamad Mohammed al-Sheikh speaks during a media briefing at the media centre during the 15th annual G-20 Leaders' Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 2020.

© Nael Shyoukhi/Reuters
Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Education Hamad Mohammed al-Sheikh speaks during a media briefing at the media centre during the 15th annual G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 2020.

His comments kicked off the second day of a summit that is being held virtually and has been dominated by discussions about the pandemic and its disastrous fallout.


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“No one expected that 1.6 billion students will be outside of schools,” said Hamed el-Sheikh. “No education system in the world had expected that they will face a prolonged time where students are staying at home in lockdowns.”

Leaders attending the summit represent nations that top the world in the rate of infections, including the United States, India, Brazil and France.

[Group of 20 leaders call for global coronavirus vaccine access as U.S. labs near approval]

On Saturday, the summit’s first day, most world leaders stressed the need for greater global cooperation to ensure that vaccines against the virus are affordable and widely distributed, including in developing nations.

A notable exception was President Trump, whose disdain for multilateralism has been a hallmark of his tenure. During perfunctory remarks to the group that he followed with a round of golf, Trump made no promise to expand the availability of U.S. vaccines and touted his administration’s own record in combating the virus, saying it had “marshaled every resource.”

Even before his comments, expectations were low for the summit, an annual gathering of the world’s largest economies. The meeting was expected to finalize a framework for granting poor nations debt relief and promoting international vaccine collaborations such as Covax, a World Health Organization-linked effort to expand vaccine distribution to the developing world.

The gathering also provoked protests from Saudi and international human rights groups — as well as some U.S. and European lawmakers — that called on world leaders to boycott or downgrade their representation over the kingdom’s abuses, including jailings of female activists and the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

No world leaders boycotted, but neither did the remote gathering provide Saudi Arabia with the kind of platform it had sought to showcase its accomplishments. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler who has become a lightning rod for criticism over human rights, was expected to address the gathering later on Sunday.

The World Bank has said the pandemic could drive as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty, reversing two decades of steady progress in alleviating the suffering of the world’s poorest people. UNICEF has also warned that unequal access to technology among students in poorer countries threatens to “deepen the global learning crisis.”

Saudi Arabia, with virtually unmatched financial resources,

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Australian scientists find huge new healthy coral reef off northern coast

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian scientists found a detached coral reef on the Great Barrier Reef that exceeds the height of the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower, the Schmidt Ocean Institute said this week, the first such discovery in over 100 years.

The “blade like” reef is nearly 500 metres tall and 1.5 kilometres wide, said the institute founded by ex-Google boss Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy. It lies 40 metres below the ocean surface and about six kilometres from the edge of Great Barrier Reef.

A team of scientists from James Cook University, led by Dr. Robin Beaman, were mapping the northern seafloor of the Great Barrier Reef on board the institute’s research vessel Falkor, when they found the reef on Oct. 20.

“We are surprised and elated by what we have found,” said Beaman.

He said it was the first detached reef of that size to be discovered in over 120 years and that it was thriving with a “blizzard of fish” in a healthy ecosystem.

The discovery comes after a study earlier this month found the Great Barrier Reef had lost more than half its coral in the last three decades.

Using the underwater robot known as SuBastian, the scientists filmed their exploration of the new reef, collecting marine samples on the way, which will be archived and placed in the Queensland Museum and the Museum of Tropical Queensland.

“To not only 3D map the reef in detail, but also visually see this discovery with SuBastian is incredible,” Beaman added.

Although the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef suffered from bleaching in 2016, Beaman said this detached reef didn’t display any evidence of damage.

Bleaching occurs when the water is too warm, forcing coral to expel living algae and causing it to calcify and turn white.

The Great Barrier Reef runs 2,300 km (1,429 miles) down Australia’s northeast coast spanning an area half the size of Texas. It was world heritage listed in 1981 by UNESCO as the most extensive and spectacular coral reef ecosystem on the planet.

(Reporting by James Redmaynein Sydney; Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

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LIGO and Virgo reveal a huge collection of gravitational waves

Earth is awash in gravitational waves.

Over a six-month period, scientists captured a bounty of 39 sets of gravitational waves. The waves, which stretch and squeeze the fabric of spacetime, were caused by violent events such as the melding of two black holes into one.

The haul was reported by scientists with the LIGO and Virgo experiments in several studies posted October 28 on a collaboration website and at The addition brings the tally of known gravitational wave events to 50.

The bevy of data, which includes sightings from April to October 2019, suggests that scientists’ gravitational wave–spotting skills have leveled up. Before this round of searching, only 11 events had been detected in the years since the effort began in 2015. Improvements to the detectors — two that make up the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, in the United States, and another, Virgo, in Italy — have dramatically boosted the rate of gravitational wave sightings.

While colliding black holes produced most of the ripples, a few collisions seem to have involved neutron stars, ultradense nuggets of matter left behind when stars explode.

Some of the events added to the gravitational wave register had been previously reported individually, including the biggest black hole collision spotted so far (SN: 9/2/20) and a collision between a black hole and an object that couldn’t be identified as either a neutron star or black hole (SN: 6/23/20).

Gravitational waves are produced when two massive objects, such as black holes, spiral around one another and merge. These visualizations, which are based on computer simulations, show these merging objects for 38 of the 50 known gravitational wave events.

What’s more, some of the coalescing black holes seem to be very large and spinning rapidly, says astrophysicist Richard O’Shaughnessy of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, a member of the LIGO collaboration. That’s something “really compelling in the data now that we hadn’t seen before,” he says. Such information might help reveal the processes by which black holes get partnered up before they collide (SN: 6/19/16).

Scientists also used the smorgasbord of smashups to further check Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity, which predicts the existence of gravitational waves. When tested with the new data — surprise, surprise — Einstein came up a winner.

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