Turing's Morphogenesis Theory Finally Confirmed 60 Years After His Death

First Posted: Mar 12, 2014 03:27 PM EDT

British mathematician Alan Turing was perhaps one of the most brilliant people of the 20th century. His countless contributions to mathematics, computer science, biology, and chemistry are revered and widely acknowledged today.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Brandeis University validated Turing's theory of morphogenesis 60 years after his death. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.

Morphogenesis is concerned with the shapes of tissues, organs, and entire organisms as well as the positions of the various specialized cell types. In 1952, Turing wrote his only biology paper entitled "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis" in which he proposed non-uniformity may arise naturally out of a homogenous, uniform state. Or, in simpler terms, "how identical copies of a single cell differentiate into an organism with arms and legs, a head and tail." 

Turing's explanation of morphogenesis through chemistry was the first such explanation. The theory hadn't been validated until this week, 62 years after his death. He proposed that identical biological cells can differentiate and change through intercellular reaction-diffusion, where six different patterns of chemically different cells would arise. The researchers from Pittsburgh and Brandeis discovered those six patterns Turing predicted, plus an additional seventh.

Seth Fraden, a professor of physics at Brandeis, and Irv Epstein, a professor of chemistry at Pittsburgh, tested Turing's model through chemical experiments, which were then mathematically analyzed by Pittsburgh's Professor G. Bard Ermentrout in a series of experiments. To read more about how the researchers arrived at the results, visit this Pitt News release.

Turing is most famous for cracking the German Enigma code during World War II, ultimately helping the Allied forces claim victory. Known as the "father of theoretical computer science," Turing developed the concepts of algorithm and computation, both of which are integral parts of computer science today. He died in 1954 at the age of 41 due to cyanide poisoning.

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