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Tool to design new protein and probe into dark energy win ‘Oscars’ of science

Recipients of prestigious 2021 Breakthrough Award were announced Thursday. Mark Zuckerberg is among founders and sponsors of the prize considered largest in the sciences.

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New Delhi: A tool that allows scientists to design novel proteins from scratch and a mathematical equation that describes random processes, such as fluctuating stock prices and motion of sugar in a cup of tea — these are some of the winners of the esteemed 2021 Breakthrough Prize, also known as the ‘Oscars’ of science, that were announced Thursday.

The prizewinners were announced by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation for their exceptional achievements in the Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are among of the founders and sponsors of these awards.

The recipients of the Breakthrough Prize receive a grant of $3 million (more than Rs 22 crore) and this year the awards announced were worth a collective $18.75 million (more than Rs 137 crore).

It is the largest award in the science, and has honoured over 3,000 leading scientists with more than $250 million since 2012.


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The winners

David Baker from the University of Washington and Howard Hughes Medical Institute won the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. They developed a technology that allows designing proteins that have never been seen in nature before. Using this technique, researchers can create novel proteins that have the potential to treat human diseases.

Catherine Dulac of Harvard University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute also received the prize in the same category for deconstructing the complex behaviour of parenting by looking at cell-types and their particular wiring. Dulac’s work showed that the neural circuits that drive both male and female-specific parenting behaviours are present in both sexes.

Yuk Ming Dennis Lo from the Chinese University of Hong Kong received the prize for discovering that foetal DNA is present in maternal blood and can be used for the prenatal testing of genetic disorders.

Eric Adelberger, Jens H. Gundlach and Blayne Heckel from University of Washington were recognised for precision fundamental measurements that test our understanding of gravity and probe the nature of dark energy in the ‘Fundamental Physics’ category.


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2 Indian-origin scientists win attached prizes

The awards also include Six New Horizons Prizes of $100,000 (Rs 78,54,435) each, and these were shared among 12 early-career scientists and mathematicians who have made a substantial impact on their fields.

Among those who received this prize is Bhargav Bhatt, an Indian-origin researcher, from the University of Michigan who was recognised for his work in mathematics.

Urmila Mahadev, an Indian-origin mathematician who completed her PhD in 2018 from the University of California, Berkeley, was presented with the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize for her work in quantum computation.

The Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize was established in 2019 and named after the famed Iranian mathematician who passed away in 2017. The $50,000 (Rs 36,77,217) New Frontiers Prize award is presented to women mathematicians who have completed their PhDs within the past two years.

The Breakthrough Prize is intended to help scientific leaders gain freedom from financial constraints and freely pursue scientific research.

The awards are usually presented to the recipients at a gala ceremony every year, but this year’s ceremony has been postponed to March 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.


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