In a paper published recently in Science, researchers from Multicellular Systems Biology lab at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona led by ICREA Research Professor James Sharpe, show that BMP and WNT proteins are the so-called “Turing molecules” for creating embryonic fingers. This confirms a fundamental theory first proposed by the founding father of computer science, Alan Turing, back in 1952. BMPs and WNTs interact in a self-organising process, producing a repetitive pattern of gene expression that determines which cells should become fingers. This explains why polydactyly – the development of extra fingers or toes – is relatively common in humans, affecting up to 1 in 500 births.
The approach taken was that of systems biology – combining experimental work with computational modelling. In this way, the two equal-first authors of the paper were able to iterate between the empirical and the theoretical: the lab-work experimental data for the model, and the computer simulations making predictions to be tested back in the lab.