Protein design and physics earn UW professors a pair of prestigious Breakthrough Prizes

David Baker of the Institute for Protein Design. (UW Photo)

Researchers at the University of Washington working on both protein design and the understanding of gravity have been awarded the Breakthrough Prize in life sciences and fundamental physics. The so-called “world’s largest science prize,” announced Thursday, comes with a $3 million award.

UW biochemist David Baker won one of four 2021 Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences for his work developing technology that allowed the design of proteins never seen before in nature, including novel proteins that have the potential for therapeutic intervention in human diseases.

Baker, director of the UW’s Institute for Protein Design, told GeekWire that he’s really excited about what IPD is doing and he thinks it can go way further.

“Being able to design proteins from scratch, to do exactly what you want to do rather than modifying what we find around us, is kind of like the transition out of the stone age,” Baker said.

Last year, IPD was awarded a five-year, $45 million grant from The Audacious Project at TED, adding to funding that the institute receives from the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The promise of protein design could deliver universal vaccines for flu, HIV and cancer; medicines for chronic pain; smart therapeutics; nanoengineering for solar energy capture, and more. And the Breakthrough Prize recognized IPD in part, for its latest project, a crowd-sourced novel protein that could adhere to a COVID-19 virus and destroy it.

“I’m not someone who usually thinks about prizes, but it’s definitely one of the major recognitions that there is for scientists today,” Baker said, adding that he’ll be putting his prize money back into the research effort. “I’m hoping that, with the attention drawn to the potential of protein design, we’ll be able to raise money philanthropically. … We’ve just barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.”

The Eöt-Wash Group, from left, Eric Adelberger, Jens Gundlach and Blayne Heckel. (Photos via Breakthrough Prize)

The 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was awarded to the UW’s Eöt-Wash Group of Eric Adelberger, Jens Gundlach and Blayne Heckel. The professors were awarded for “precision fundamental measurements that test our understanding of gravity, probe the nature of dark energy, and establish limits on couplings to dark matter,” according to Breakthrough Prize.

The Eöt-Wash Group has been looking for evidence of rolled-up extra dimensions (as predicted by strong theory) and verifying the equivalence principle (basically, that all objects in a gravitational field fall at the same rate). Eöt-Wash has found that any rolled-up extra dimensions can be no larger than 30 microns wide (one-third the diameter of a human hair). They’re also trying to verify whether gravity is the weakest fundamental force, or whether there’s a “fifth force” that’s even weaker.

The team has been working on questions surrounding gravity since 1986, and Adelberger said they’re carrying the torch into the future in many ways, contributing to the work relating to gravitational waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), for example.

Adelberger said the Eöt-Wash Group hasn’t yet found anomalies in how gravity works — if they had, it would earn them a Nobel Prize.

“Of course we’re disappointed we didn’t go to Stockholm because we found unequivocal evidence for something entirely new,” Adelberger said. “But it’s a very important thing to know how well you know the things you think you know.”

As to how the three will split the $3 million prize, Adelberger said he plans to use his share to support an endowed professorship in the UW Physics Department named after Arthur B. McDonald, a Nobel-winning astrophysicist who spent some time at UW in 1978.

“I’ve known Art since I was a graduate student,” Adelberger said. The professorship would focus on fundamental physics.

Heckel wants to create a supplemental endowment (a “chair reserve”) at the UW to cover extra expenses at the Physics Department. The unrestricted funds could be used, for example, to buy furniture (like a chair).

Gundlach hasn’t decided yet how he’ll use his share.

“We’ve argued for hiring a new faculty member in this area of physics for many years, without much success,” Heckel added. “Perhaps this prize will tip the scales a little bit.”

Beyond the $3 million prizes in life sciences, physics and mathematics, Breakthrough Prize also recognizes the achievements of early career researchers with its 2021 New Horizons in Physics Prize (three prizes at $100,000), the 2021 New Horizons in Mathematics Prize (three prizes at $100,000) and the 2021 Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize (three prizes @ $50,000).

Here are details on the other Breakthrough Prize winners:

2021 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

  • Catherine Dulac (Harvard University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute): For deconstructing the complex behavior of parenting to the level of cell-types and their wiring, and demonstrating that the neural circuits governing both male- and female-specific parenting behaviors are present in both sexes.
  • Dennis Lo (The Chinese University of Hong Kong): For discovering that fetal DNA is present in maternal blood and can be used for the prenatal testing of trisomy 21 and other genetic disorders.
  • Richard J. Youle (National Institutes of Health / National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke): For elucidating a quality control pathway that clears damaged mitochondria and thereby protects against Parkinson’s Disease.

2021 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics

  • Martin Hairer (Imperial College London): For transformative contributions to the theory of stochastic analysis, particularly the theory of regularity structures in stochastic partial differential equations.

2020 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

  • Steven Weinberg (The University of Texas at Austin): For continuous leadership in fundamental physics, with broad impact across particle physics, gravity and cosmology, and for communication science to a wider audience.

2021 New Horizons in Physics Prize

  • Tracy Slatyer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): For major contributions to particle astrophysics, from models of dark matter to the discovery of the “Fermi Bubbles.”
  • Rouven Essig (Stony Brook University), Javier Tiffenberg (Fermilab), Tomer Volansky (Tel Aviv University), Tien-Tien Yu (University of Oregon): For advances in the detection of sub-GeV dark matter especially in regards to the SENSEI experiment.
  • Ahmed  Almheiri (Institute for Advanced Study), Netta Engelhardt (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Henry Maxfield (University of California, Santa Barbara), Geoff Penington (Stanford University): For calculating the quantum information content of a black hole and its radiation.

2021 New Horizons Prize in Mathematics (awarded to early career researchers)

  • Bhargav Bhatt (University of Michigan): For outstanding work in commutative algebra and arithmetic algebraic geometry, particularly on the development of p-adic cohomology theories.
  • Alexander Logunov (Princeton University): For novel techniques to study solutions to elliptic equations, and their application to long-standing problems in nodal geometry.
  • Song Sun (University of California, Berkeley): For many groundbreaking contributions to complex differential geometry, including existence results for Kahler-Einstein metrics and connections with moduli questions and singularities.

2021 Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize (awarded to outstanding early-career women in mathematics)

  • Nina Holden (ETH Zurich / PhD MIT 2018): For work in random geometry, particularly on Liouville Quantum Gravity as a scaling limit of random triangulations.
  • Urmila Mahadev (California Institute of Technology (PhD University of California, Berkeley 2018): For work that addresses the fundamental question of verifying the output of a quantum computation.
  • Lisa M. Piccirillo (Massachusetts Institute of Technology / National Science Foundation / PhD University of Texas at Austin 2019): For resolving the classic problem that the Conway knot is not smoothly sliced.

GeekWire contributing editor Alan Boyle assisted with this report.

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