Alan Turing and “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis”

  • Vidyanand Nanjundiah


A. M. Turing (1912–1954) was one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century. He contributed at least three original ideas in his life, a claim that not many can make. They were the ‘Turing machine’, the ‘Turing test’ and the ‘Turing instability’. The aim of this article is to make some comments on the last of these. It forms part of the only biological work by him published in his lifetime, entitled “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” [24], My comments begin as questions pertaining to its background, immediate reception and subsequent impact from the viewpoint of biology. No attempt is made to discuss the mathematical aspects of Turing’s analysis, interesting as they are because to do so would be redundant for the readers of this volume. This being Turing’s sole publication dealing with a conventional biological problem (i.e., ignoring for the moment what he had to say on the question of Mind), I will use “Turing’s paper” and “Turing’s contribution to biology” as if the two terms were interchangeable. Strictly speaking, this is not correct. Ward-law [26] finished and wrote up on his own the ideas about phyllotaxis that he had been discussing with Turing. There is also a volume of Turing’s Collected Works that includes later, incomplete developments on morphogenesis which appeared after his death [20]. More pertinently, neither contains essential information bearing on our assessment of The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis — which, after all, is the only thing that Turing did that many biologists know, or know about.


Pattern Formation Chemical Basis Turing Model Turing Instability Biological Form 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Akam, M. (1989). Making stripes inelegantly. Nature 341: 282–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Bard, J. and Lauder, I. (1974). How well does Turing’s theory of morphogenesis work? J. theor. Biol. 45: 501–531.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Child, C. M. (1941). Patterns and Problems in Development University of Chicago press.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    D’Arcy Thompson, W. (1917; 1942; 1971 ). On Growth and Form. (Abridged edition) J. T. Bonner, ed., Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Gierer, A. and Meinhardt, H. (1972). A theory of biological pattern formation. Kybernetik 12: 30–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Hodges, A. (1983). Alan Turing: The Enigma of Intelligence. Burnett Books, London.zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Hunding, A. and Sorensen, P. B. (1988). Size adaptation of Turing prepatterns. Bull. Math. Biol. 26: 27–39.MathSciNetzbMATHCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Keller, E. F. (2002). Making Sense of Life Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Kondo, S. and Asad, R. (1995). A reaction-diffusion wave on the skin of the marine angelfish Pomacanthus. Nature 376: 765–768.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Kolmogorov A. N., Petrovski, I. G. and Piskunov, N. S. (1937). Study of the diffusion equation with a concentration-dependent source term and an application to a biological problem. Moscow Univ. Bull. Ser. Internat. Sect. A 1: 1–25. (in Russian)Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Maynard Smith, J. (1968). Mathematical Ideas in Biology Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    McNally, J. G. and Cox, E. C. (1989). Spots and stripes: the patterning spectrum in the cellular slime mould Polysphondylium pallidum. Development 105: 323–333.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Morgan, T. H. (1905). “Polarity” considered as a phenomenon of gradation of materials. J. exp. Zool. 2: 495–506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Newman, S. A. (1993). Is segmentation generic? BioEssays 15: 277–283.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Newman, S. A. (2002). Developmental mechanisms: Putting genes in their place. J. Biosciences 27: 97–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Othmer, H. G. and Pate, E. (1980). Scale invariance in reaction-diffusion models of spatial pattern formation. Proc. Nato. Acad. Sci. USA 77: 4180-A184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Rashevsky, N. (1960). Mathern.atical Biophysics: Physico-Mathernatical Foundations of Biology, Vols. 1, 2. New York: Dover, 1960.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Rose, S. M. (1952). A hierarchy of self-limiting reactions as the basis of cellular differentiation and growth control. Alm. Nat. LXXXVI: 337–354.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Saunders, P. T. (1993). Alan Turing and biology. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 15 (3): 33–36.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Spiegelman, S. (1945). Physiological competition as a regulatory mechanism in morphogenesis. Quart. Rev. Biol. 20 (2): 121–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Stern, C. (1968). Genetic Mosaics and Other Essays. Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Theraulaz, G., Bonabeau, E., Nicolis, S. C., Sold, R. V., Fourcassié, V., Blanco, S., Fournier, R., Joly, J -L., Fernandez, P., Grimai, A., Dalle, P. and Deneubourg, J-L. (2002). Spatial patterns in ant colonies. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 98: 9645–9649.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Turing, A. M. (1952). The chemical basis of morphogensis, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. B, 237, 37–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Waddington, C. H. (1962). Patterns and Problems in Development. Columbia University Press, New York, USA.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Wardlaw, C. W. (1953). A commentary on Turing’s diffusion-reaction theory of morphogenesis. New Phytol. 52: 40–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Japan 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Vidyanand Nanjundiah
    • 1
  1. 1.Indian Institute of Science and Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific ResearchBangaloreIndia

Personalised recommendations