In 1952, well before developmental biologists spoke in terms of Hoxgenes and transcription factors, or even understood DNA’s structure, Alan Turing had an idea. The famed mathematician who hastened the end of World War II by cracking the Enigma code turned his mind to the natural world and devised an elegant mathematical model of pattern formation. His theory outlined how endless varieties of stripes, spots, and scales could emerge from the interaction of two simple, hypothetical chemical agents, or “morphogens.”
Decades passed before biologists seriously considered that this mathematical theory could in fact explain myriad biological patterns. The development of mammalian hair, the feathers of birds, and even those ridges on the roof of your mouth all stem from Turing-like mechanisms.