Turing’s Far-Reaching Theory of Morphogenesis Validated 60 Years After His Death

British mathematician Alan Turing’s (image) accomplishments in computer science are well known—he’s the man who cracked the German Enigma code, expediting the Allies’ victory in World War II. He also had a tremendous impact on biology and chemistry. In his only paper in biology, Turing proposed a theory of morphogenesis, or how identical copies of a single cell differentiate, for example, into an organism with arms and legs, a head and tail. Now, 60 years after Turing’s death, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) and Brandeis University have provided the first experimental evidence that validates Turing’s theory in cell-like structures. The team published its findings online in PNAS on March 10. Turing, in 1952, was the first to offer an explanation of morphogenesis through chemistry. He theorized that identical biological cells differentiate and change shape through a process called intercellular reaction-diffusion. In this model, chemicals react with each other and diffuse across space—say between cells in an embryo. These chemical reactions are managed by the interaction of inhibitory and excitatory agents. When this interaction plays out across an embryo, it creates patterns of chemically different cells. Turing predicted six different patterns could arise from this model. At Brandeis, Dr. Seth Fraden, professor of physics, and Dr. Irv Epstein, professor of chemistry, created rings of synthetic, cell-like structures with activating and inhibiting chemical reactions to test Turing’s model. Pitt’s Dr. G. Bard Ermentrout, University Professor of Computational Biology and professor of mathematics in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, undertook mathematical analysis of the experiments. The researchers observed all six patterns plus a seventh unpredicted by Turing.
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