Turing's theory of morphogenesis of 1952 and the subsequent discovery of the crucial role of local self-enhancement and long-range inhibition

Interface Focus. 2012 Aug 6;2(4):407-16. doi: 10.1098/rsfs.2011.0097. Epub 2012 Feb 8.


In his pioneering work, Alan Turing showed that de novo pattern formation is possible if two substances interact that differ in their diffusion range. Since then, we have shown that pattern formation is possible if, and only if, a self-enhancing reaction is coupled with an antagonistic process of longer range. Knowing this crucial condition has enabled us to include nonlinear interactions, which are required to design molecularly realistic interactions. Different reaction schemes and their relation to Turing's proposal are discussed and compared with more recent observations on the molecular-genetic level. The antagonistic reaction may be accomplished by an inhibitor that is produced in the activated region or by a depletion of a component that is used up during the self-enhancing reaction. The autocatalysis may be realized by an inhibition of an inhibition. Activating molecules can be processed into molecules that have an inhibiting function; patterning of the Wnt pathway is proposed to depend on such a mechanism. Three-component systems, as discussed in Turing's paper, are shown to play a major role in the generation of highly dynamic patterns that never reach a stable state.

Keywords: Turing's theory; Wnt pathway; activator–inhibitor systems; morphogenesis; pattern formation.