The download: protein discovery and the climate crisis in Pakistan


This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s happening in the tech world.

AI that can design new proteins could help unlock new drugs and materials

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

How it works: ProteinMPNN, developed by a group of researchers at 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 opposite problem. If they already have an exact protein structure in mind, this 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 vital to working with them. Traditionally, researchers create 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 Heikkila

Read more:

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

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

The ‘fingerprints’ of climate change are clear in Pakistan’s devastating floods

What we know: Climate change is likely to have 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: It is not clear how big a role climate change plays. Using climate models to determine the role of global warming in amplifying the full monsoon season has proven difficult, due to some combination of wide variability in heavy rainfall patterns over long periods, natural processes at work that the models may not fully capture, and idiosyncrasies of the territory’s weather. And the weather in the country is likely to become even more extreme. Read the full story.

— James Temple

The required readings

I’ve scoured the internet to find you today’s funniest/important/scary/fascinating tech stories.

1 Uber appears to have been hacked by a teenager
An 18-year-old claims to be behind the cyber security breach that compromised the company’s internal systems. (NYT$)
+ In the meantime, its services are operating normally for customers. (Bloomberg $)

2 AI uses medical notes to learn to detect disease on chest X-rays
Training AI models to read existing reports can save researchers from having to manually label the data. (MIT Technology Review)

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

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

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

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

7 The most complex AI systems can baffle even their creators
Which is sort of the point of deep learning. (Atlantic $)

8 Into the wild world of leg extensions
More and more men are willing to break their legs to look taller – for a price. (GQ)
+ Bionic limbs may 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 down aging
Messing with one’s epigenetic age is one place to start. (Neo.Life)
+ Aging clocks aim to predict how long you will live. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“Facebook is kind of gone.”

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

The big story

Two sick children and a $1.5 million bill: a family races for a gene therapy treatment

October 2018

Jenny and Gary Landsman launched an online appeal to save their sons on Thanksgiving Day 2017. In a moving video, the couple described how their two sons, Benny, then 18 months, and Josh, four months – both have a fatal genetic brain a disease called Canavan’s 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 are studying Canavan, and there are no approved drugs for treatment.

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

The Landsmans had discovered gene therapy, a technology that uses viruses to add healthy genes to cells with defective ones. The medical logic of the technology is especially compelling to parents of children with the rarest diseases on earth because it offers the ultimate in error correction. The problem is: who will pay? Read the full story.

— Antonio Regado

We can still have good things

A place of comfort, entertainment and distraction in these strange times. (Any ideas? Email me 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.
+ Seeing as we’re heading 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 collection of Roman coins is pretty amazing.





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