September 29, 2023


You are Your Only Limit

Efficient evolution of human antibodies from general protein language models

22 min read

Acquiring amino acid substitutions via language model consensus

We select amino acid substitutions recommended by a consensus of language models. We take as input a single wild-type sequence x = (x1,…,xN) \(\mathcalX\)N, where \(\mathcalX\) is the set of amino acids, and N is the sequence length. We also require a set of masked language models, which are pre-trained to produce conditional likelihoods \(p\left( \mathbfx \right)\). To guide evolution based on a certain language model, we first compute the set of substitutions with higher language model likelihood than the wild-type—that is, we compute the set

$$\mathcalM\left( p_j \right) = \left\{ {i \in \left[ N \right],x_i^\prime \in \mathcalX:\frac{p_j\left( x_i^\prime \right)}{{p_j\left( \mathbfx \right)}} > \alpha } \right\},$$

where pj denotes the language model, xi denotes the wild-type residue and α = 1. To further filter substitutions to only those with the highest likelihood, we choose substitutions based on a consensus scheme, where, for a new amino acid \(x_i^\prime\), we compute

$$f\left( x_i^\prime \right) = \mathop \sum\limits_j \in \left[ M \right] 1 \left\{ {\left( i,x_i^\prime \right)\mathrmis\,\mathrmin\,{\mathcalM}\left( p_j \right)} \right\}$$

where 1· denotes the indicator function, and there are M language models. We then acquire the set of substitutions with higher likelihood than wild-type across multiple language models—that is, we acquire

$$\mathcalA = \left\{ {i \in \left[ N \right],x_i^\prime \in {\mathcalX}:f\left( x_i^\prime \right) \ge k} \right\}$$

where k is a user-supplied cutoff that controls the number of corresponding variants to measure. Although we focus on values of k that result in small values of \(|\mathcalA|\) (around 10) that can be screened via low-throughput assays, the number of substitutions can be increased by reducing the value of k or by lowering the cutoff stringency α. Our strategy based on computing ‘wild-type marginal’ likelihoods based on the entire sequence, \(p\left( {x_i^\prime |\mathbfx} \right)\), instead of the ‘masked marginal’ likelihoods in which the site of interest is masked, \(p\left( {x_i^\prime |{{\mathbfx}}_\left[ N \right]\backslash \left\ i \right\} \right)\), also increases the cutoff stringency (Extended Data Fig. 1).

We use six large-scale masked language models—namely, the ESM-1b model19 and the five models that are ensembled together to form ESM-1v20—both obtained from ESM-1b was trained on the 2018-03 release of UniRef50 (ref. 23) consisting of ~27 million sequences, and the five models in ESM-1v were each trained on the 2020-03 release of UniRef90 (ref. 23) consisting of ~98 million sequences.

Antibody sequence analysis and evolution

For antibodies, we performed the above steps for the VH and VL sequences separately, obtaining respective sets \(\mathcalA_\mathrmVH\) and \(\mathcalA_\mathrmVL\). For round 1 of evolution, we set α = 1 and chose values of k such that \(|\mathcalA_\mathrmVH \cup \mathcalA_\mathrmVL|\) is approximately 10, which is meant to be a reasonable number of antibody variants for one person to express and purify in parallel. We used k = 2 for MEDI8852 VH and VL, k = 2 for MEDI8852 UCA VH and VL, k = 4 for mAb114 VH and VL, k = 2 for mAb114 UCA VH and VL, k = 2 for S309 VH, k = 1 for S309 VL, k = 2 for REGN10987 VH and VL and k = 2 for C143 VH and VL. We further reduced the size of \(|\mathcalA_{{{{\mathrmVH}}}} \cup \mathcalA_{{{{\mathrmVL}}}}|\) by requiring the substitution to have the highest likelihood at its respective site for at least one language model. Variants were first measured for binding affinity to a given antigen via BLI (more details below), and those that enhanced affinity were recombined such that the second-round variants have two or more substitutions from wild-type, which were tested during round 2 of evolution. Given the small number of affinity-enhancing substitutions found during round 1 of evolution for S309 and REGN10987, we also expanded the set of substitutions considered in round 2 to include those that preserved affinity. For MEDI8852 and MEDI8852 UCA, we tested all possible combinations in round 2; for the other antibodies, where the number of possible combinations far exceeds ~10 variants, we manually selected a set of combinations meant to prioritize inclusion of substitutions that resulted in the largest improvements in affinity during the first round.

We used the wild-type sequences provided by the original study authors describing the respective antibodies29,30,31,32,38. Wild-type VH and VL sequences are provided in the Supplementary Information. We used the Kabat region definition provided by the abYsis webtool version 3.4.1 ( to annotate the framework regions and CDRs within the VH and VL sequences.

Antibody avidity benchmarking experiments

We also compared the substitutions recommended by the above strategy (based on language model consensus) to the substitutions recommended by four alternative sequence-based methods. First, we acquired substitutions to a VH or VL sequence based on site-independent mutational frequencies, where we used either the frequencies computed by the abYsis Annotation webtool44 or the frequencies obtained using all sequences in UniRef90 (the training dataset of ESM-1v)23. To compute the UniRef90 frequencies, we first performed an exhaustive search to obtain the 10,000 closest sequences by Levenshtein distance, where 10,000 is chosen to reflect the number of immunoglobulin-like sequences in UniRef90. We computed sequence similarity using the partial_ratio function from the FuzzyWuzzy Python package version 0.18.0; we then constructed a multiple sequence alignment of these 10,000 sequences using MAFFT version 7.475 (ref. 63) using the VH or VL sequence as the reference; finally, using the alignment, we computed mutational frequencies for each site in the sequence. We selected the top-ranking substitutions by likelihood ratio (the mutant frequency divided by the corresponding wild-type frequency) across the VH and VL sequences, where, for each antibody, we selected the same number of substitutions considered in the first round of our evolutionary campaigns.

We also acquired substitutions based on language models trained specifically on antibody sequences. We used the AbLang heavy chain and light chain language models ( and the Sapiens heavy chain and light chain language models ( to compute the mutant-to-wild-type likelihood ratios for all single-residue substitutions to the VH or VL sequence (using the language model trained on sequences from the corresponding chain). We selected the top-ranking substitutions by likelihood ratio across the VH and VL sequences and, following our use of the general protein language models, also required the substitution to have the highest likelihood at its site. For each antibody, we selected the same number of substitutions considered in the first round of our evolutionary campaigns.

We used these four methods (abYsis, UniRef90, AbLang and Sapiens) to select substitutions to our three unmatured antibodies (MEDI8852 UCA, mAb114 UCA and C143) and used BLI to measure IgG avidity to their respective antigens (HA H1 Solomon, GP and Beta S-6P). To purify the larger number of variants involved in these benchmarking studies, we used a medium-throughput system using a robotic liquid handler, described in more detail below. With this system, we expressed and purified antibody variants containing single-residue substitutions from wild-type recommended by the consensus of ESM language models as well as by the four baseline methods, observing similar purities and affinities when the same variants were also expressed and purified via the low-throughput system (described below) used in our evolutionary campaigns. Antibodies with a final concentration of less than 0.1 mg ml−1 in 200 μl after the medium-throughput purification were re-expressed and purified using the low-throughput methodology.

UniRef90 robustness and statistical significance analysis

For the UniRef90 benchmark, we additionally assessed robustness to differences in multiple sequence alignment (MSA) construction by computing the number of known affinity-enhancing substitutions while varying the sequence alignment depth from 1,000 to 9,000 sequences at increments of 1,000 (for a total of nine alignment depth cutoffs). At each cutoff, we re-ran the procedure described above to select substitutions (constructing MSAs and calculating mutational likelihood ratios). We performed this for all three experimentally benchmarked antibodies, representing a total of 27 MSAs. Among the top-ranked substitutions for each cutoff and benchmarked antibody, we counted the number of known affinity-enhancing substitutions and provide the results in Extended Data Fig. 3 and Supplementary Data 3.

We also used the UniRef90 benchmark to assess the statistical significance of the number of avidity-enhancing substitutions recommended by the language models. In particular, we calculated the probability of acquiring 12 or more avidity-enhancing substitutions (Supplementary Table 12) by simulating different outcomes of a site-independent model based on UniRef90 alignments. To construct the null distribution, we first simulated variation in UniRef90 alignments using the nine MSAs of varying alignment depth and their corresponding recommended substitutions, described in the previous paragraph. We then simulated experimental measurement of these mutations for avidity enhancement across the three benchmarked antibodies: for each top-ranked substitution with an unknown effect on avidity, we assigned a success probability based on the observed probabilities from our experimental benchmark (2/8 = 25% for MEDI8852 UCA; 5/9 = 56% for mAb114 UCA; and 1/14 = 7% for C143); for each top-ranked substitution with a known effect on avidity, we fixed its value to its experimentally determined status. We ran 500,000 simulations for each of the nine MSA cutoffs (a total of 4.5 million simulations), where each simulation returns a total number of avidity-enhancing substitutions across the three antibodies. We report the P value as the number of simulations resulting in 12 or more avidity-enhancing substitutions divided by the total number of simulations.

Antibody cloning

We cloned the antibody sequences into the CMV/R plasmid backbone for expression under a CMV promoter. The heavy chain or light chain sequence was cloned between the CMV promoter and the bGH poly(A) signal sequence of the CMV/R plasmid to facilitate improved protein expression. Variable regions were cloned into the human IgG1 backbone; REGN10987 and C143 variants were cloned with a lambda light chain, whereas variants of all other antibodies were cloned with a kappa light chain. The vector for both heavy and light chain sequences also contained the HVM06_Mouse (UniProt: P01750) Ig heavy chain V region 102 signal peptide (MGWSCIILFLVATATGVHS) to allow for protein secretion and purification from the supernatant. VH and VL segments were ordered as gene blocks from Integrated DNA Technologies and were cloned into linearized CMV/R backbones with 5× In-Fusion HD Enzyme Premix (Takara Bio); a list of oligonucleotides and gene blocks used in the study is provided as Supplementary Data 6.

Antigen cloning

HA, GP, Spike and RBD sequences were cloned into a pADD2 vector between the rBeta-globin intron and β-globin poly(A). HA constructs contain a Foldon trimerization domain. GP and Spike constructs contain a GCN4 trimerization domain. All HAs, GP, Wuhan-Hu-1 S-6P and Omicron BA.1 RBD constructs contain an AviTag. All constructs contain a C-terminal 6×His tag. We used HA sequences from the following strains: A/New Caledonia/20/1999(H1N1) (H1 Caledonia), A/Solomon Islands/3/2006(H1N1) (H1 Solomon), A/Japan/305/1957 (H2N2) (H2 Japan), A/Panama/2007/1999(H3N2) (H3 Panama), A/Victoria/3/1975(H3N2) (H3 Victoria), A/swine/Hubei/06/2009(H4N1) (H4 Hubei), A/Vietnam/1203/2004(H5N1) (H5 Vietnam), A/Hong Kong/61/2016(H7N9) (H7 HK16) and A/Hong Kong/125/2017(H7N9) (H7 HK17). We used Ebola GP ectodomain (Mayinga, Zaire, 1976, GenBank: AAG40168.1) with the mucin-like domain deleted (Δ309–489). Spike or RBD sequences were based off wild-type Wuhan-Hu-1 (GenBank: BCN86353.1), Beta (GenBank: QUT64557.1) or Omicron BA.1 (GenBank: UFO69279.1).

DNA preparation

Plasmids were transformed into Stellar competent cells (Takara Bio), and transformed cells were plated and grown at 37 °C overnight. Colonies were mini-prepped per the manufacturer’s recommendations (GeneJET, K0502, Thermo Fisher Scientific) and sequence confirmed (Sequetech) and then maxi-prepped per the manufacturer’s recommendations (NucleoBond Xtra Maxi, Macherey-Nagel). Plasmids were sterile filtered using a 0.22-μm syringe filter and stored at 4 °C.

Protein expression

All proteins were expressed in Expi293F cells (Thermo Fisher Scientific, A14527). Proteins containing a biotinylation tag (AviTag) were also expressed in the presence of a BirA enzyme, resulting in spontaneous biotinylation during protein expression. Expi293F cells were cultured in media containing 66% FreeStyle/33% Expi media (Thermo Fisher Scientific) and grown in TriForest polycarbonate shaking flasks at 37 °C in 8% carbon dioxide. The day before transfection, cells were spun down and resuspended to a density of 3 × 106 cells per milliliter in fresh media. The next day, cells were diluted and transfected at a density of approximately 3–4 × 106 cells per milliliter. Transfection mixtures were made by adding the following components: maxi-prepped DNA, culture media and FectoPRO (Polyplus) would be added to cells to a ratio of 0.5 μg: 100 μl: 1.3 μl: 900 μl. For example, for a 100-ml transfection, 50 μg of DNA would be added to 10 ml of culture media, followed by the addition of 130 μl of FectoPRO. For antibodies, we divided the transfection DNA equally among heavy and light chains; in the previous example, 25 μg of heavy chain DNA and 25 μg of light chain DNA would be added to 10 ml of culture media. After mixing and a 10-min incubation, the example transfection cocktail would be added to 90 ml of cells. The cells were harvested 3–5 days after transfection by spinning the cultures at >7,000g for 15 min. Supernatants were filtered using a 0.45-μm filter.

Antibody purification (low throughput)

We purified antibodies using a 5-ml MabSelect Sure PRISM column on the ÄKTA pure fast protein liquid chromatography (FPLC) instrument (Cytiva). The ÄKTA system was equilibrated with line A1 in 1× PBS, line A2 in 100 mM glycine pH 2.8, line B1 in 0.5 M sodium hydroxide, Buffer line in 1× PBS and Sample lines in water. The protocol washes the column with A1, followed by loading of the sample in the Sample line until air is detected in the air sensor of the sample pumps, followed by five column volume washes with A1, elution of the sample by flowing of 20 ml of A2 directly into a 50-ml conical containing 2 ml of 1 M tris(hydroxymethyl)aminomethane (Tris) pH 8.0, followed by five column volumes of A1, B1 and A1. We concentrated the eluted samples using 50-kDa or 100-kDa cutoff centrifugal concentrators, followed by buffer exchange using a PD-10 column (Sephadex) that had been pre-equilibrated into 1× PBS. Purified antibodies were stored at −20 °C.

Antibody purification (medium throughput)

For our benchmarking experiments, we purified antibody variants with a medium-throughput system using an Agilent Bravo robotic liquid handling platform and VWorks software version with custom programming routines. For each antibody wild-type or variant, a 2.5-ml culture of Expi293F cells was transfected with corresponding antibody heavy and light chain plasmids as previously described. Cultures were harvested 3–5 days after transfection by centrifugation at 4,200g for 10 min, followed by collecting 2 ml of supernatant. ProPlus PhyTip column tips (Biotage, PTV-92-20-07) were loaded on the Bravo 96 LT head and equilibrated by aspirating and dispensing 75 μl of PBS, repeating four times. Sample binding to the tip resin was performed by aspirating and dispensing 98 μl of harvested supernatant, followed by washing via aspirating and dispensing 100 μl of PBS, repeating the binding and washing steps nine times (in total processing 882 μl of harvest for each run). Elution was performed by aspirating 100 μl of 100 mM glycine pH 2.8, followed by dispensing into a well with 10 μl of 1 M Tris pH 8.

Antigen purification

All antigens were His-tagged and purified using HisPur Ni-NTA resin (Thermo Fisher Scientific, 88222). Cell supernatants were diluted with 1/3 volume of wash buffer (20 mM imidazole, 20 mM 4-(2-hydroxyethyl)-1-piperazineethanesulfonic acid (HEPES) pH 7.4, 150 mM sodium chloride (NaCl) or 20 mM imidazole, 1× PBS), and the Ni-NTA resin was added to diluted cell supernatants. For all antigens except SARS-CoV-2 Spike, the samples were then incubated at 4 °C while stirring overnight. SARS-CoV-2 Spike antigens were incubated at room temperature while stirring overnight. Resin/supernatant mixtures were added to chromatography columns for gravity flow purification. The resin in the column was washed with wash buffer (20 mM imidazole, 20 mM HEPES pH 7.4, 150 mM NaCl or 20 mM imidazole, 1× PBS), and the proteins were eluted with 250 mM imidazole, 20 mM HEPES pH 7.4, 150 mM NaCl or 20 mM imidazole, 1× PBS. Column elutions were concentrated using centrifugal concentrators at 10-kDa, 50-kDa or 100-kDa cutoffs, followed by size-exclusion chromatography on an ÄKTA pure system (Cytiva). ÄKTA pure FPLC with a Superdex 6 Increase (S6) or Superdex 200 Increase (S200) gel filtration column was used for purification. Then, 1 ml of sample was injected using a 2-ml loop and run over the S6 or S200, which had been pre-equilibrated in degassed 20 mM HEPES, 150 mM NaCl or 1× PBS before use and stored at −20 °C.

Fab production and purification

Next, 1/10 volume of 1 M Tris pH 8 was added to IgGs at ~2 mg ml−1 in 1× PBS. Then, 2 μl of a 1 mg ml−1 stock of Lys-C (stock stored at −20 °C) was added for each milligram of human IgG1 and digested for 1 h at 37 °C with moderate rotation. Digested Fabs were purified using a 5-ml HiTrap SP HP cation exchange chromatography column on an ÄKTA system using 50 mM sodium acetate (NaOAc) pH 5.0 with gradient NaCl elution (using 50 mM NaOAc + 1 M NaCl pH 5.0). Fab fractions were pooled and dialyzed against 1× PBS and concentrated using 30-kDa concentrators. Purified Fabs were stored at −20 °C.

BLI binding experiments

All reactions were run on an Octet RED96 at 30 °C, and samples were run in 1× PBS with 0.1% BSA and 0.05% Tween 20 (Octet buffer). IgGs and Fabs were assessed for binding to biotinylated antigens using streptavidin biosensors (Sartorius/ForteBio) or to unbiotinylated, His-tagged antigens using Anti-Penta-HIS biosensors (Sartorius/ForteBio). Antigen was loaded to a threshold of 1-nm shift. Tips were then washed and baselined in wells containing only Octet buffer. Samples were then associated in wells containing IgG or Fab at 100 nM concentration unless otherwise stated (other concentrations are given in Supplementary Data 1). A control well with loaded antigen but that was associated in a well containing only 200 μl of Octet buffer was used as a baseline subtraction for data analysis. Association and dissociation binding curves were fit in Octet System Data Analysis Software version using a 1:2 bivalent model for IgGs to determine apparent Kd and a 1:1 model for Fabs to determine Kd. Averages of fitted Kd values from at least two independent experiments are reported to two significant figures. Wild-type and the highest-affinity variants were also tested at multiple concentrations, and Kd values were averaged across all replicates and concentrations (Supplementary Data 1). To estimate measurement error, we computed the coefficient of variation (CV; the ratio of the s.d. to the mean across replicates) for each antibody−antigen Kd pair, and we report the mean CV for each antigen in Supplementary Tables 2 and 4–9.

Thermal melts

We measured thermal melting profiles of proteins by differential scanning fluorimetry on a Prometheus NT.48 instrument. Protein samples (0.1 mg ml−1) were loaded into glass capillaries and then subjected to a temperature gradient from 20 °C to 95 °C at a heating rate of 1 °C per minute. Intrinsic fluorescence (350 nm and 330 nm) was recorded as a function of temperature using PR.ThermControl version 2.3.1 software. Thermal melting curves were plotted using the first derivative of the ratio (350 nm/330 nm). Melting temperatures were calculated automatically by the instrument and represented peaks in the thermal melting curves.

PolySpecificity Particle assay

Polyspecificity reagent (PSR) was obtained as described by Xu et al.41. Soluble membrane proteins were isolated from homogenized and sonicated Expi 293F cells followed by biotinylation with Sulfo-NHC-SS-Biotin (Thermo Fisher Scientific, 21331) and stored in PBS at −80 °C. The PolySpecificity Particle (PSP) assay was performed following Makowski et al.42. Protein A magnetic beads (Invitrogen, 10001D) were washed three times in PBSB (PBS with 1 mg ml−1 BSA) and diluted to 54 μg ml−1 in PBSB. Then, 30 μl of the solution containing the beads was incubated with 85 μl of antibodies at 15 µg ml−1 overnight at 4 °C with rocking. The coated beads were then washed twice with PBSB using a magnetic plate stand (Invitrogen, 12027) and resuspended in PBSB. We then incubated 50 μl of 0.1 mg ml−1 PSR with the washed beads at 4 °C with rocking for 20 min. Beads were then washed with PBSB and incubated with 0.001× streptavidin-APC (BioLegend, 405207) and 0.001× goat anti-human Fab fragment FITC (Jackson ImmunoResearch, 109-097-003) at 4 °C with rocking for 15 min. Beads were then washed and resuspended with PBSB. Beads were profiled via flow cytometry using a BD Accuri C6 flow cytometer. Data analysis was performed with BD CSampler Plus software version to obtain median fluorescence intensity (MFI) values, which are reported for each antibody across three or more replicate wells. Elotuzumab (purified using the low-throughput FPLC methodology described above), ixekizumab (FPLC purified as described above) and 4E10 (HIV Reagent Program, ARP-10091) are also included in each assay as controls.

Lentivirus production

We produced SARS-CoV-2 Spike (D614G and Beta variants) pseudotyped lentiviral particles. Viral transfections were done in HEK293T cells (American Type Culture Collection, CRL-3216) using BioT (BioLand) transfection reagent. Six million cells were seeded in D10 media (DMEM + additives: 10% FBS, L-glutamate, penicillin, streptomycin and 10 mM HEPES) in 10-cm plates 1 day before transfection. A five-plasmid system was used for viral production, as described in Crawford et al.64. The Spike vector contained the 21-amino-acid truncated form of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike sequence from the Wuhan-Hu-1 strain of SARS-CoV-2 (GenBank: BCN86353.1) or the Beta variant of concern (GenBank: QUT64557.1). The other viral plasmids, used as previously described64, are pHAGE-Luc2-IRS-ZsGreen (NR-52516), HDM-Hgpm2 (NR-52517), pRC-CMV-Rev1b (NR-52519) and HDM-tat1b (NR-52518). These plasmids were added to D10 medium in the following ratios: 10 μg pHAGE-Luc2-IRS-ZsGreen, 3.4 μg FL Spike, 2.2 μg HDM-Hgpm2, 2.2 μg HDM-Tat1b and 2.2 μg pRC-CMV-Rev1b in a final volume of 1,000 μl.

Ebola GP-pseudotyped lentiviruses were produced using the same packaging (pHAGE-Luc2-IRS-ZsGreen) and helper plasmids (HDM-Hgpm2, HDM-Tat1b and pRC-CMV-Rev1b) but with the plasmid encoding full-length Ebola GP (GenBank: AAG40168.1).

After adding plasmids to medium, we added 30 μl of BioT to form transfection complexes. Transfection reactions were incubated for 10 min at room temperature, and then 9 ml of medium was added slowly. The resultant 10 ml was added to plated HEK cells from which the medium had been removed. Culture medium was removed 24 h after transfection and replaced with fresh D10 medium. Viral supernatants were harvested 72 h after transfection by spinning at 300g for 5 min, followed by filtering through a 0.45-μm filter. Viral stocks were aliquoted and stored at −80 °C until further use.

Pseudovirus neutralization

The target cells used for infection in SARS-CoV-2 pseudovirus neutralization assays are from a HeLa cell line stably overexpressing human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) as well as the protease known to process SARS-CoV-2: transmembrane serine protease 2 (TMPRSS2). Production of this cell line is described in detail by Rogers et al.65 with the addition of stable TMPRSS2 incorporation. ACE2/TMPRSS2/HeLa cells were plated 1 day before infection at 8,000 cells per well. For Ebola pseudovirus neutralization assays, HEK293T cells were seeded in 96-well plates 1 day before infection at 20,000 cells per well. Ninety-six-well, white-walled, white-bottom plates were used for neutralization assays (Thermo Fisher Scientific).

On the day of the assay, purified IgGs in 1× PBS were sterile filtered using a 0.22-μm filter. Dilutions of this filtered stock were made into sterile 1× Dulbecco’s PBS (DPBS) (Thermo Fisher Scientific), which was 5% by volume D10 medium. A virus mixture was made containing the virus of interest (for example, SARS-CoV-2) and D10 media (DMEM + additives: 10% FBS, L-glutamate, penicillin, streptomycin and 10 mM HEPES). Virus dilutions into media were selected such that a suitable signal would be obtained in the virus-only wells. A suitable signal was selected such that the virus-only wells would achieve a luminescence of at least >5,000,000 relative light units (RLU). Then, 60 μl of this virus mixture was added to each of the antibody dilutions to make a final volume of 120 μl in each well. Virus-only wells were made, which contained 60 μl of 1× DPBS and 60 μl of virus mixture. Cells-only wells were made, which contained 120 μl of D10 media.

The antibody/virus mixture was left to incubate for 1 h at 37 °C. After incubation, the medium was removed from the cells on the plates made 1 day prior. This was replaced with 100 μl of antibody/virus dilutions and incubated at 37 °C for approximately 24 h. Infectivity readout was performed by measuring luciferase levels. SARS-CoV-2 and Ebola pseudovirus neutralization assays were read out 48 h and 72 h after infection, respectively. Medium was removed from all wells, and cells were lysed by the addition of 100 μl of BriteLite assay readout solution (PerkinElmer) into each well. Luminescence values were measured using an Infinite 200 PRO Microplate Reader (Tecan) using i-control version 2.0 software (Tecan). Each plate was normalized by averaging the cells-only (0% infection) and virus-only (100% infection) wells. We used the neutcurve Python package version 0.5.7 to fit the normalized datapoints and to compute the IC50 values, which we report to two significant digits. To estimate measurement error, we computed the CV for each antibody–virus IC50 pair, and we report the mean CV for each virus in Supplementary Tables 5, 8 and 9.

HLA binding prediction

As a proxy for predicting T-cell-mediated immunogenicity, we used NetMHCPan version 4.1 and NetMHCIIPan version 4.1 (ref. 43) to predict peptide binders to class I and class II HLA, respectively, across a number of alleles. For the class I analysis, we applied NetMHCPan with default parameters to the VH and VL sequences of the wild-type sequences as well as the VH and VL variant sequences listed in Fig. 3a. We considered all 9-mer peptides and predicted binding to HLA-A01:01, HLA-A02:01, HLA-A03:01, HLA-A24:02, HLA-A26:01, HLA-B07:02, HLA-B08:01, HLA-B27:05, HLA-B39:01, HLA-B40:01, HLA-B58:01 and HLA-B15:01. For each VH or VL sequence, we counted the number of peptides determined as ‘strong binders’ or ‘weak binders’ according to NetMHCPan. We then tested for a significant change in the number of binders between the evolved variant sequence and its corresponding wild-type using the binom_test function in scipy.stats. For the class II analysis, we similarly applied NetMHCIIPan with default parameters to the same set of VH and VL sequences. We considered all 15-mer peptides and predicted binding to DRB1_0101, DRB3_0101, DRB4_0101, DRB5_0101, HLA-DPA10103-DPB10101 and HLA-DQA10101-DQB10201. For each VH or VL sequence, we counted the number of peptides determined as ‘strong binders’ or ‘weak binders’ according to NetMHCIIPan. We then tested for a significant change in the number of binders between the evolved variant sequence and its corresponding wild-type using the binom_test function in scipy.stats.

Computing frequency of changes to antibody protein sequences

We computed the frequency of residues involved in affinity-enhancing substitutions by aligning the wild-type VH and VL sequences of our antibodies to databases of protein sequences. The first database that we considered is UniRef90, where we used the same database release used to train ESM-1v. For each antibody protein sequence, we obtained the set of 10,000 sequences in UniRef90 that are closest to the antibody by sequence similarity based on Levenshtein distance (with the farthest sequences having between 18% and 47% sequence similarity). We computed sequence similarity using the FuzzyWuzzy Python package version 0.18.0. We then used MAFFT version 7.475 to perform multiple sequence alignment among the set of sequences. We used the alignment to compute amino acid frequencies at each site in the VH or VL sequence.

The second database that we considered is provided by the abYsis webtool, which also computes the frequency of amino acids at each position based on a multiple sequence alignment. We aligned VH and VL protein sequences using the default settings provided in the ‘Annotate’ tool, using the database of ‘All’ sequences as of 1 March 2022.

We also considered the frequency of affinity-enhancing substitutions conditioned on the corresponding V or J gene. We obtained all sequences and corresponding gene annotations from IMGT/LIGM-DB (the international ImMunoGeneTics information system, Laboratoire d’ImmunoGénétique Moléculaire database) ( as of 13 July 2022. For MEDI8852, MEDI8852 UCA, mAb114 and mAb114 UCA, we used the V and J gene annotations from the original publications29,30. For S309, REGN10987 and C143, we used the V and J gene annotations in CoV-AbDab (,68,69,70,71,72,73,74,75. For a given substitution, we obtained all corresponding V or J protein sequences, performed a multiple sequence alignment with MAFFT version 7.475 and used the resulting alignment to compute amino acid frequencies.

Therapeutic antibody database evaluation and runtime benchmark

We downloaded 742 therapeutically relevant antibodies from the Thera-SAbDab database as of 26 February 2022 ( For each antibody VH and VL sequence, we used the same procedure described above for computing consensus substitutions that have higher language model likelihood than wild-type. We measured the computational runtime using the time module in Python 3.8. Experiments were performed with an Advanced Micro Devices EPYC Rome 7502P 2.5-GHz CPU and an Nvidia Ampere A40 48GB GPU.

Natural protein evaluation and benchmarking based on scanning mutagenesis data

We evaluated the ability for the language models and algorithms used in our study to guide efficient evolution in other settings beyond antibodies. We used deep mutational scanning (DMS) datasets to validate that our approach would enable a researcher to acquire high-fitness variants. We used all DMS datasets from the benchmarking study by Livesey and Marsh48 with 90% or higher coverage of all single-residue substitutions; variants that were not measured were excluded from the analysis. We also used a scanning mutagenesis dataset generated by Markin et al.8 that measured Michaelis–Menten kinetics of all single-site glycine or valine substitutions to the bacterial enzyme PafA; for this dataset, any language-model-recommended substitutions that did not involve glycine or valine substitutions were excluded from the analysis. We applied a cutoff for each dataset to binarize sequences as high-fitness or low-fitness variants (cutoffs are provided in Supplementary Table 13); we then compared enrichment of high-fitness variants among the language-model-recommended variants to the background frequency of high-fitness variants among all single-residue substitutions. For these proteins, as with our antibody experiments, we chose values of k that result in a small number (~101) of acquired substitutions: we used α = 1 and k = 2 for all proteins except those where this resulted in \(|\mathcalA|\) ≤5, in which case we set k = 1 (and additionally α = 0.5 for infA).

To quantify the statistical significance of an enrichment, we assumed that the null distribution of the number of high-fitness, language-model-recommended variants was given by a hypergeometric distribution parameterized by the number of language-model-recommended variants \(|\mathcalA|\), the number of high-fitness variants among the all single-residue substitutions and the total number of single-residue substitutions considered, which we used to compute a one-sided P value. We used the hypergeometric calculator at

To test the relationship between likelihood stringency and the fraction of high-fitness substitutions, we also performed a small-scale parameter sweep varying the cutoff values α and k and computing (1) the percentage fraction of high-fitness substitutions in \({{{\mathcalA}}}\); (2) the maximum fitness value of a variant in \({{{\mathcalA}}}\) divided by the maximum fitness value of a variant across the full mutational scan; and (3) the maximum fitness value of a variant in \({{{\mathcalA}}}\) divided by the 99th percentile of the fitness values across the full mutational scan; before this normalization, the raw fitness values are also linearly scaled to take values between 0 and 1, inclusive. Normalized values, the number of acquired variants \(|{{{\mathcalA}}}|\) and the parameter combinations are plotted in Extended Data Fig. 4.

We also tested how well alternative methods for ranking substitutions would be able to suggest high-fitness variants. To enable a direct comparison to the language model consensus strategy described above, we selected the same number of substitutions and kept all other parameters fixed while only varying the method used to rank substitutions. We used the benchmarking results obtained by Livesey and Marsh48 enabling us to test 46 different methods for ranking substitutions, which use evolutionary information, biophysical properties of amino acids or protein structure information; these methods are described in greater detail in Table EV1 of ref. 48. We also tested how well using the summed log-likelihood ratios across all ESM language models (that is, computing \(\mathop \sum\nolimits_j {\left( {\log p_j\left( x_i^\prime \right) – \log p_j\left( {x_i|{{{\mathbfx}}}} \right)} \right)}\) at each site i and substitution \(x_i^\prime\)) would compare to the consensus strategy. For each DMS dataset, we computed the number of high-fitness mutations that were acquired by each of these 47 benchmark methods (Extended Data Fig. 5); we broke any ties in variant effect predictor scores by randomly selecting substitutions and computing the average number of high-fitness variants over 100 random seeds. We aggregated results across DMS datasets by ranking methods within each DMS (averaging the ranks that would have been assigned to tied values) and computed the mean rank across the eight DMS datasets (Extended Data Fig. 5 and Supplementary Data 5).

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