You can think of it as a World Cup of biochemical research.
Every two years, hundreds of scientists enter a global competition. Tackling a biological puzzle they call "the protein folding problem," they try to predict the three-dimensional shape of proteins in the human body. No one knows how to solve the problem. Even the winners only chip away at it. But a solution could streamline the way scientists create new medicines and fight disease.
Mohammed AlQuraishi, a biologist who has dedicated his career to this kind of research, flew in early December to Cancun, Mexico, where academics were gathering to discuss the results of the latest contest. As he checked into his hotel, a five-star resort on the Caribbean, he was consumed by melancholy.
The contest, the Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction, was not won by academics. It was won by DeepMind, the artificial intelligence lab owned by Google's parent company.
"I was surprised and deflated," said Dr. AlQuraishi, a researcher at Harvard Medical School. "They were way out in front of everyone else."