UW News

September 10, 2020

Four UW professors win 2021 Breakthrough Prize — so-called ‘Oscars of Science’


Pictured left to right: David Baker, a professor in the UW School of Medicine and director of the Institute for Protein Design, won the prize for life sciences, while a team of UW physics professors, including Eric Adelberger, Jens Gundlach and Blayne Heckel, earned the prize for fundamental physics.University of Washington

Four University of Washington professors were among the winners of the 2021 Breakthrough Prize, which recognizes groundbreaking achievements in the life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics.

David Baker, a professor in the UW School of Medicine’s department of biochemistry, won the prize for life sciences, while a team of UW physics professors, including Eric Adelberger, Jens Gundlach and Blayne Heckel, earned the prize for fundamental physics.

The Breakthrough Foundation annually awards the Breakthrough Prizes, which were founded in 2013 and are dubbed the “Oscars of Science.” Each prize is worth $3 million.

Baker, director of the Institute for Protein Design at the UW, was recognized for 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.

Over billions of years, nature has produced a thousand trillion proteins — the workhorse molecules essential to every life function — each with a unique origami-style design that allows it to precisely lock onto an adjacent molecule to perform its unique function. Then came the Protein Design Revolution, harnessing supercomputing and newly discovered principles of how natural proteins fold to turn evolution on its head.

“We could wait another million years for the protein we need to evolve, or we could design it ourselves,” Baker said. His enthusiastic design community of 250,000 — citizen scientists, Foldit players and gamers — uses a combination of human ingenuity and automated computational firepower. Their latest project is a promising crowd-sourced novel protein that could adhere to a COVID-19 virus and destroy it.

“One-hundred people will approach the solution to a problem from 100 different perspectives,” said Baker, who invented the open-source Rosetta software for computational modeling and analysis of novel proteins. The promise of protein design? Universal vaccines for flu, HIV, COVID-19 and cancer; medicines for chronic pain; smart therapeutics; nanoengineering for solar energy capture, and more.

“I am excited about this award accelerating progress at the IPD in de novo design of new proteins not found in nature to address current challenges in medicine and beyond,“ Baker said. “I thank my wonderful colleagues — undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, faculty and staff — at the IPD and UW, and members of the general public contributing to our efforts through the rosetta@home and Foldit projects.“

The award gives Baker and Gundlach, longtime friends who go on hikes and climbs together, something new to talk about the next time they hit the trails.

“David is very well deserving of this prize,” said Gundlach, who currently serves as principal investigator on the Eöt-Wash Group’s research in physics. “He has really pioneered the field of protein folding in a major way.”

The Eöt-Wash Group, made up of UW physicists Adelberger, Gundlach and Heckel, was recognized for precision fundamental measurements that test our understanding of gravity, probe the nature of dark energy and establish limits on couplings to dark matter is.

“I think the award was quite unexpected to all of us, but as a surprise it generates even more joy,” Gundlach said. “Presenting our research to the public was always rewarding because our experiments are intriguing and fun to hear about, but knowing that a panel of famous physicists selected our work feels particularly rewarding.”

The equivalence principle — the observation that objects, whatever they are made of, fall with the same acceleration — inspired Albert Einstein’s relativistic theory of gravity. Motivated by the unexplained phenomena of dark matter and dark energy that hint towards new physics, as well as theoretical attempts to develop unified quantum theories of gravity that inherently predict violations of the equivalence principle and additional curled-up space dimensions, the UW Eöt-Wash team decided to probe the fundamental properties of gravity with a new generation of instruments.

They took the two-century-old torsion balance concept and developed it into a supremely sensitive 21st-century instrument to look for new fundamental physics. They tested the equivalence principle, the inverse square law, and measured the gravitational constant with unprecedented precision and sensitivity. For example, their latest inverse-square law test probed gravity at ultra-short distances, establishing that any extra dimension must be curled up with a radius less than one-third the diameter of a human hair.

Last year, Lukasz Fidkowski, an assistant professor of physics at the UW, won the New Horizons in Physics Prize from the Breakthrough Foundation. At least three researchers associated with the UW have received Breakthrough prizes in prior years.

Each year, the Prize is celebrated at a gala award ceremony, where the awards are presented by superstars of movies, music, sports and tech entrepreneurship. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this year’s ceremony has been postponed until March 2021.

For more information, contact Victor Balta at balta@uw.edu.