ABOVE: Researchers in California and Japan were awarded a joint prize for linking narcolepsy to the protein orexin. The protein’s three-dimensional shape was predicted earlier this year by the deep learning system AlphaFold 2, whose developers also received a Breakthrough Prize. © iStock.com, theasis

The latest Breakthrough Prizes—among the world’s most lucrative research awards—were awarded today (September 22) to life scientists working in fields as varied as neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Six men shared three awards, each of which is worth $3 million and sponsored by philanthropists Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Julia and Yuri Milner, and Anne Wojcicki.

The first award is to be shared by Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics geneticist Anthony Hyman and Princeton University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute bioengineer Clifford Brangwynne, formerly a postdoc in Hyman’s lab, for their work discovering a fundamental mechanism of cellular organization: liquid-liquid phase separation. When the two scientists first published a paper on the phenomenon in Science in 2009, it received little fanfare outside of a small group of niche researchers, according to a press release from Princeton, garnering only 10 or so citations in the first few years. “I knew it was cool. But nobody was talking about awards,” Brangwynne says in the release, adding that “A lot has happened since then.”

See “These Organelles Have No Membranes

Today, phase separation has been found to have roles in protein aggregation, gene expression, cell growth , cancer, and neurodegenerative disease, among other processes. 

Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, both artificial intelligence researchers at the London-based computer programming company DeepMind, were awarded a joint prize for their work developing AlphaFold 2, a deep learning system that accurately and rapidly models the three dimensional structure of proteins. Predicting the shapes that proteins take, which in turn dictates their function, has been one of the great challenges of modern biology. This summer, the team published the predicted structures for 200 million proteins derived from nearly every organism with protein sequence data, making their findings freely available. “Few discoveries so dramatically alter a field, so rapidly,” Mohammed AlQuraishi, a computational biologist at Columbia University in New York City, tells Nature. “It’s really changed the practice of structural biology, both computational and experimental.”

Lastly, Stanford University School of Medicine sleep researcher Emmanuel Mignot and University of Tsukuba molecular geneticist Masashi Yanagisawa were awarded a joint prize after their labs made simultaneous, converging discoveries that elucidated the genetic cause of the chronic sleep disorder narcolepsy. Work by the two researchers demonstrated that narcolepsy is a neurodegenerative disease with autoimmune origins and mediated by a protein called orexin (or sometimes hypocretin) that regulates wakefulness. The research hasn’t yet led to a treatment for the disorder, but many potential therapies are in clinical trials. “If everything goes smoothly, then within maybe three or four years, there will be a clinically available drug treatment,” Yanagisawa tells New Scientist.

See “In Dogged Pursuit of Sleep

In addition to the life sciences, Breakthrough Prizes were also awarded in mathematics and fundamental physics. The awards honored contributions to the study of theoretical computer science and quantum information, respectively.