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Improved protein structure prediction by deep learning irrespective of co-evolution information


Predicting the tertiary structure of a protein from its primary sequence has been greatly improved by integrating deep learning and co-evolutionary analysis, as shown in CASP13 and CASP14. We describe our latest study of this idea, analysing the efficacy of network size and co-evolution data and its performance on both natural and designed proteins. We show that a large ResNet (convolutional residual neural networks) can predict structures of correct folds for 26 out of 32 CASP13 free-modelling targets and L/5 long-range contacts with precision over 80%. When co-evolution is not used, ResNet can still predict structures of correct folds for 18 CASP13 free-modelling targets, greatly exceeding previous methods that do not use co-evolution either. Even with only the primary sequence, ResNet can predict the structures of correct folds for all tested human-designed proteins. In addition, ResNet may fare better for the designed proteins when trained without co-evolution than with co-evolution. These results suggest that ResNet does not simply de-noise co-evolution signals, but instead may learn important protein sequence–structure relationships. This has important implications for protein design and engineering, especially when co-evolutionary data are unavailable.

A preprint version of the article is available at bioRxiv.

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Fig. 1: Contact prediction accuracy by various ResNet models on 31 CASP13 FM targets.
Fig. 2: 3D modelling accuracy (TMscore) on the 32 CASP13 FM targets.
Fig. 3: 3D modelling accuracy on the human-designed proteins.

Data availability

The PDB IDs of the human-designed proteins are available in Supplementary Data 4. The domain sequences determined by our own CASP13 server for the CASP13 targets are available in Supplementary Data 5. The official domain sequences of the CASP13 targets and their corresponding PDB IDs are available at the CASP13 web site, The training data, including the multiple sequence alignment and ground truth files, are available at

Code availability

The source code is available at or and the server is available at In addition to template-free protein structure prediction, this package also supports comparative protein structure modelling, that is, building protein 3D models from templates by deep learning.


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We thank J. Yang and I. Anishchanka for their very helpful discussions, providing trRosetta results and helping with PyRosetta. We thank I. Anishchanka for providing the MSAs built by the Baker human group for the CASP14 targets. This work is supported by National Institutes of Health grant no. R01GM089753 (J.X.) and National Science Foundation grant no. DBI1564955 (J.X.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information




J.X. conceived the whole project, implemented and tested the code, and wrote the manuscript. M.M. studied the gradient-based energy minimization algorithm and revised the manuscript. J.L. studied the deep learning algorithms, trained some ResNet models and generated the RGN results.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jinbo Xu.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Machine Intelligence thanks Jeffrey Gray, Sai Pooja Mahajan and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Distance matrices predicted for T0969-D1 by deep ResNet.

Distance matrices predicted for T0969-D1 by deep ResNet when co-evolution is not used (left) and used (right). Only distance predictions less than 15Å are displayed in color. In each picture, native distance and predicted distance are shown below and above the diagonal, respectively.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Fig. 1 and Table 1.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

Data for the ablation study of contact prediction accuracy on CASP13 FM targets.

Supplementary Data 2

Detailed 3D modelling accuracy on CASP13 FM targets.

Supplementary Data 3

Data for the ablation study of 3D modelling accuracy on CASP13 FM targets.

Supplementary Data 4

Detailed 3D modelling accuracy on human-designed proteins.

Supplementary Data 5

CASP13 FM domain sequences defined by the RaptorX server in the CASP13 session.

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Xu, J., McPartlon, M. & Li, J. Improved protein structure prediction by deep learning irrespective of co-evolution information. Nat Mach Intell (2021).

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