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Genetics Unzipped podcast: How the zebra got its stripes – when maths and molecules collide

‘I’ll take spots, then,’ said the Leopard; ‘but don’t make ‘em too vulgar-big. I wouldn’t look like Giraffe—not for ever so.’

If you’ve ever read Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, published in 1902, then you might just recognise that quote. Kipling’s explanation of how the leopard got his spots, as the result of an enthusiastic fingerpainting session, isn’t exactly scientifically correct.

Fifty years later, in 1952 a mathematician published a set of equations that tried to explain the patterns we see in nature, from a spotty leopard to a blotched giraffe, the dappled stripes adorning the back of a zebra to the whorled leaves on a plant stem, or even the complex tucking and folding that turns a ball of cells into an organism. His name was Alan Turing.

More famous for cracking the wartime Enigma code and his contributions to mathematics, computer science and artificial intelligence, it may come as a surprise that Turing harboured such an interest. In fact, it was an extension of his fascination with the workings of the mind and the underlying nature of life.

In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, presenter Dr Kat Arney takes a trip back in time to discover how one of the world’s greatest mathematical minds cracked the code behind the stripes on a zebra, the spots on a leopard, and even the pattern of bones in your own body, and the scientific twists and turns that have happened in the seventy years since Turing published his pioneering paper.

This story first appeared in the article ‘How the zebra got its stripes, with Alan Turing’ by Kat Arney, published by Mosaic and republished under a Creative Commons licence.

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Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

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