October 1, 2022

The download: discover proteins, and Pakistan’s climate crisis

The download: discover proteins, and Pakistan’s climate crisis

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter providing a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

An AI that can design new proteins could help unlock new cures and materials

What happened?: A new AI tool could help researchers discover previously unknown proteins and design entirely new ones. When harnessed, it could help unlock the development of more effective vaccines, speed up research into cancer cures or lead to entirely new materials.

How it works: ProteinMPNN, developed by a group of researchers from the University of Washington, offers scientists a tool that will complement DeepMind’s AlphaFold tool’s ability to predict the shapes of all proteins known to science. ProteinMPNN will help researchers with the reverse problem. If they already have an exact protein structure in mind, it will help them find the amino acid sequence that folds into that shape.

Why it matters: Proteins are fundamental to life, and understanding their shape is essential to working with them. Traditionally, researchers design proteins by modifying those found in nature, but ProteinMPNN will open up a whole new universe of possible proteins for researchers to design from scratch. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Read more:

+ DeepMind has predicted the structure of almost every protein known to science.And it’s giving the data away for free, which could spur new scientific discoveries. Read the full story.

+ This is the reason why Demis Hassabis started DeepMind. AlphaFold changed how researchers work and set DeepMind on a new course. Read the full story.

“Fingerprints” of climate change are evident in Pakistan’s devastating floods

What we know: Climate change has most likely intensified the South Asian monsoon that has flooded Pakistan in recent weeks, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying nearly 2 million homes. That’s according to a new analysis by World Weather Attribution, a network of scientists who use climate models, weather observations and other tools to determine whether global warming has increased the likelihood or severity of recent extreme weather events.

What we don’t know: Exactly how big a role climate change has played is not clear. Using climate models to establish global warming’s role in amplifying the full monsoon season has been difficult, due to a combination of the wide variation in heavy rainfall patterns over long periods, natural processes at work that the models may not represent full capture, and the weather conditions of the area. And the country’s weather is likely to become even more extreme. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must read

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s funniest/most important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Uber was apparently hacked by a teenager
An 18-year-old claims to be behind the cyber security breach, which compromised the company’s internal systems. (NYT $)
+ Meanwhile, its services work normally for customers. (Bloomberg$)

2 An AI used medical notes to teach itself to spot disease on chest x-rays
Teaching AI models to read existing reports can save researchers from manually labeling the data. (MIT Technology Review)

3 The US government’s large database of travelers’ data is growing rapidly
Data from phones and other devices is kept for 15 years. (WP$)

4 The White House wants Congress to waive social media immunity
Tech companies are protected by Section 230, which means they are not held legally liable for content posted by their users. (Reuters)
+ Here’s why it’s worth saving. (MIT Technology Review)
+ We need clearer guidelines for what constitutes harmful online content. (The information $)
+ Senators are asking Big Tech better questions these days. (Slates $)

5 Million people in India have their homes tagged
The move, which was part of the country’s Independence Day celebrations, sent privacy advocates into a frenzy. (Rest of the World)

6 Organic molecules have been found in rocks on Mars
They could prove that life may have flourished there. (Thread $)
+ The microbes may have lived in brine lakes. (motherboard)
+ The best places to find extraterrestrial life in our solar system. (MIT Technology Review)

7 The most sophisticated AI systems can confound even their creators
That’s kind of the point of deep learning. (The Atlantic $)

8 Inside the wild world of leg extension 🦵
More and more men are willing to break their legs to make them look taller—for a price. (GQ)
+ Bionic limbs could also be more widely available within a decade. (Neo.Life)

9 TikTok is the new Google
Why trust a restaurant’s website when TikTok shows you what their food actually looks like? (NYT $)

10 The Race to Slow Aging
Tinkering with a person’s epigenetic age is one place to start. (Neo.Life)
+ Antiquated clocks aim to predict how long you will live. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“Facebook is kind of extinct.”

-Natasha Hunt Lee, 25, explains why Gen Z is adopting new digital ways to invite friends to parties outside the social network to the New York Times.

The big story

Two Sick Kids and a $1.5 Million Bill: One Family’s Race for a Gene Therapy Cure

October 2018

Jennie and Gary Landsman launched an online appeal to save their sons on Thanksgiving of 2017. In a moving video, the couple describe how their two sons, Benny, then 18 months, and Josh, four months, both have a fatal genetic brain disorder called Canavan disease. It is extremely rare—so rare, in fact, that there is no reliable understanding of how many children are born with it. Relatively few researchers study Canavan, and no drugs are approved to treat it.

The Landsmans refused to accept the doctors’ advice to make their sons comfortable until they died. Instead, they learned: there might be a way to correct the genetic error in the boys’ brains. But the family will have to pay for it themselves. And it would be expensive.

The Landsmans discovered gene therapy, technology that uses viruses to add healthy genes to cells with defective genes. The technology’s medical logic is especially irresistible to parents of children with the rarest diseases on earth, because it suggests the ultimate fix. The problem is: who will pay? Read the full story.

—Antonio Regado

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these strange times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line ortweet them to me.)

+ If you enjoyed the blockbuster TV hit The White Lotus, The Resort should be right up your alley.
+ Why following your gut isn’t necessarily the path to happiness.
+ As we head into fall, here are some of the best horror movies on Netflix right now.
+ I didn’t know it was possible to make butter even tastier, but it turns out you can!
+ This Roman coin collection is pretty amazing.

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