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Robust Model-Based Optimization for Challenging Fitness Landscapes

Saba Ghaffari · Ehsan Saleh · Alex Schwing · Yu-Xiong Wang · Martin Burke · Saurabh Sinha

Halle B #10
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Wed 8 May 7:30 a.m. PDT — 9:30 a.m. PDT


Protein design, a grand challenge of the day, involves optimization on a fitness landscape, and leading methods adopt a model-based approach where a model is trained on a training set (protein sequences and fitness) and proposes candidates to explore next. These methods are challenged by sparsity of high-fitness samples in the training set, a problem that has been in the literature. A less recognized but equally important problem stems from the distribution of training samples in the design space: leading methods are not designed for scenarios where the desired optimum is in a region that is not only poorly represented in training data, but also relatively far from the highly represented low-fitness regions. We show that this problem of “separation” in the design space is a significant bottleneck in existing model-based optimization tools and propose a new approach that uses a novel VAE as its search model to overcome the problem. We demonstrate its advantage over prior methods in robustly finding improved samples, regardless of the imbalance and separation between low- and high-fitness samples. Our comprehensive benchmark on real and semi-synthetic protein datasets as well as solution design for physics-informed neural networks, showcases the generality of our approach in discrete and continuous design spaces. Our implementation is available at

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