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Proteins are essential to cells, carrying out complex tasks and catalyzing chemical reactions. Scientists and engineers have long sought to harness this power by designing artificial proteins that can perform new tasks, like treat disease, capture carbon or harvest energy, but many of the processes designed to create such proteins are slow and complex, with a high failure rate.

In a breakthrough that could have implications across the healthcare, agriculture, and energy sectors, a team lead by researchers in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago has developed an artificial intelligence-led process that uses big data to design new proteins.

By developing machine-learning models that can review protein information culled from genome databases, the researchers found relatively simple design rules for building artificial proteins. When the team constructed these artificial proteins in the lab, they found that they performed chemical processes so well that they rivaled those found in nature.

“We have all wondered how a simple process like evolution can lead to such a high-performance material as a protein,” said Rama Ranganathan, the Joseph Regenstein Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Molecular Engineering. “We found that genome data contains enormous amounts of information about the basic rules of protein structure and function, and now we’ve been able to bottle nature’s rules to create proteins ourselves.”

The research, funded in part by a Center for Data and Computing Discovery Grant, was published July 24 in the journal Science. Read more at UChicago News.