In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Jeremy Green of King's College London explains how Alan Turing’s mathematical genius continues to guide scientists more than fifty years after his death.
Jeremy Green is a reader in developmental cell biology at King’s College London. His research lab analyzes how cells build up tissues, specifically examining the molecules that give cells specific directions in three-dimensional space by controlling their fates, behaviors, spatial orientations, proportions and movements. He holds a Ph.D. from Imperial College London.
Dr. Jeremy Green – Alan Turing and Morphogen Theory
One of the biggest ideas in biology that you probably haven’t heard of is Morphogen Theory. It’s the idea that local concentration differences in chemicals called morphogens drive hundreds of simple steps that make one part of an embryo different from another. It’s the scientific explanation for the spectacular miracle of development before birth.
Over the past twenty years, we’ve discovered what many of those morphogens are. That’s why stem cells are in the news: morphogens turn stem cells into something useful. Morphogen theory also says that each morphogen has an anti-morphogen, an inhibitor, that ensures its amount and distribution in the embryo is under control and reliable.
Alan Turing, the mathematician father of morphogen theory, also showed that with remarkably simple rules for the way a morphogen and antimorphogen diffuse, they reliably self-organise themselves into patterns, either alternating stripes or spots. That part of morphogen theory has been hard to prove, but could explain everything from the stripes on a tiger’s coat to the reliability of development altogether.
In my group we discovered that the ridges on the roof of the mouth act like the stripes in Turing’s theory. We identified the morphogen and the anti-morphogen and found that perturbing them in mice gives exactly the results that the theory predicts. This matters because the theory will help find the morphogen recipes to program cells to do useful things in the body. It gives us confidence that one day we’ll be able to use morphogens to repair complex structures rather than just patch small holes with a few cells.
It’s Alan Turing’s centenary this year. The anti-gay laws that tragically drove him to suicide in 1954 are gone, but his theories live on.