Codebreaker Turing's theory explains how shark scales are patterned

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  • Author: Statistics Views
  • Date: 27 November 2018
  • Copyright: Gettyimages

A system proposed by world war two codebreaker Alan Turing more than 60 years ago can explain the patterning of tooth-like scales possessed by sharks, according to new research.
Scientists from the University of Sheffield's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences found that Turing's reaction-diffusion theory -- widely accepted as the patterning method in mouse hair and chicken feathers -- also applies to shark scales.

The findings can explain how the pattern of shark scales has evolved to reduce drag whilst swimming, thereby saving energy during movement. Scientists believe studying the patterning could help to design new shark-inspired materials to improve energy and transport efficiency.

Turing, forefather of the computer, came up with the reaction-diffusion system which was published in 1952, two years before his death. His equations describe how molecular signals can interact to form complex patterns.

thumbnail image: Codebreaker Turing's theory explains how shark scales are patterned

In the paper, published 7th November 2018 in the journal Science Advances, researchers compared the patterning of shark scales to that of chicken feathers.

They found that the same core genes underlying feather patterning also underlie the development of shark scales and suggest these genes may be involved in the patterning of other diverse vertebrate skin structures, such as spines and teeth.

Researchers also demonstrated how tweaking the inputs of Turing's system can result in diverse scale patterns comparable to those seen in shark and ray species alive today.

They suggest that natural variations to Turing's system may have enabled the evolution of different traits within these animals, including the provision of drag reduction and defensive armour.

Scientists used a combination of techniques including reaction-diffusion modelling to create a simulation based on Turing's equations, to demonstrate that his system can explain shark scale patterning, when the parameters are tuned appropriately.

Rory Cooper, PhD student at the University of Sheffield, noted that: "Scientists and engineers have been trying to create shark-skin inspired materials to reduce drag and increase efficiency during locomotion, of both people and vehicles, for many years.”

Patterning is one important aspect that contributes to achieving drag reduction in certain shark species. Another is the shape of individual scales. Researchers now want to examine the developmental processes which underlie the variation of shape both within and between different shark species.

"Understanding how both these factors contribute towards drag reduction will hopefully lead towards the production of improved, widely applicable shark-inspired materials capable of reducing drag and saving energy," added Mr Cooper.


Read the full article on: Science Daily 


Journal Reference:
1. Rory L. Cooper, Alexandre P. Thiery, Alexander G. Fletcher, Daniel J. Delbarre, Liam J. Rasch, Gareth J. Fraser. An ancient Turing-like patterning mechanism regulates skin denticle development in sharks. Science Advances, 2018; 4 (11): eaau5484 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau5484

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